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Another season marred by injury for Saints LB Dannell Ellerbe

Dannell Ellerbe has played in only four games this season because of toe and hip injuries. Derick E. Hingle/USA Today Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- Dannell Ellerbe is still optimistic he can return to the field this week after missing the past five games with a hip injury. But the damage has already been done -- for both the New Orleans Saints and the veteran linebacker.

Ellerbe, 30, has played in only four games this season because of toe and hip injuries.

“Definitely frustrating. Because after being out last year, I definitely wanted this to be like a comeback year, just to come back and have fun and help the team,” said Ellerbe, who missed 15 games with the Miami Dolphins in 2014 because of a hip injury he suffered in Week 1.

The Saints acquired Ellerbe in a trade this offseason, sending receiver Kenny Stills to the Dolphins in exchange for Ellerbe and a third-round draft pick.

Ellerbe has looked great when he has been on the field -- and it’s not a coincidence that the Saints were 3-1 in those games. They’re 1-7 without Ellerbe in the lineup.

Ellerbe racked up 28 tackles (26 solo) in the four games he was healthy. He had 13 of them, plus a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his best performance during the Saints’ 31-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6. And he has been the Saints’ best linebacker in pass coverage this season.

But his impact has been far too limited.

Ellerbe missed the first three games with a toe injury. Then he has missed the past five with a hip injury. Ellerbe declined to get specific about the details of the injury, so it’s unclear if it’s related to the issue that landed him on injured reserve in 2014. But he specified that it wasn’t a sports hernia.

“I thought it was gonna be like a two-week thing," Ellerbe said. "I just gotta keep working at it.”

Ellerbe returned to practice last week, but he and the team ultimately decided he wasn’t ready to play yet against the Carolina Panthers. Perhaps he’ll be back this week at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“(There was) no setback, it’s been improving the whole time. I just gotta get to the point where I’m confident in it and I can do what I do on the field,” Ellerbe said. “I don’t want to just go out there to be out there and hurt the team.”

Ellerbe has had a frustrating run over the past three years since he was on top of the football world. He helped the Baltimore Ravens win a Super Bowl after the 2012 season, then he signed a $35 million contract with the Dolphins in 2013.

His first season in Miami was decent, but a bit of a disappointment, partly because the Dolphins move him from his natural position of weakside linebacker to middle linebacker. Miami moved him back to the weak side last year, and the Saints also play him on the weak side. He was excited about returning "home" to the Will linebacker position; he just hasn't been able to take advantage.

Ellerbe agreed to a pay cut as part of a restructured contract when he joined the Saints this offseason. He has two years remaining on the deal through 2017.