Dannell Ellerbe's new deal a discount for Saints; Dolphins absorb bonuses

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' trade for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe looks even better after the details of his new contract were revealed Tuesday.

Ellerbe, 29, agreed to take a significant pay cut from the $8.45 million he was originally scheduled to receive this year to a fully guaranteed $4.8 million -- and the Miami Dolphins agreed to absorb $3.6 million in bonuses on the new deal, ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates confirmed.

That means the Saints are only on the hook for a total of $1.2 million in cash and salary-cap space this year (a fully guaranteed $1.1 million salary and a $100,000 workout bonus). The other $3.6 million will count against Miami’s salary cap.

That also means that the Saints are now back under the salary cap without requiring any more roster cuts or pay cuts -- for now, anyway. New Orleans will likely need to carve out more space if it wants to add any more free agents and eventually to sign all of its draft picks.

As part of Ellerbe’s new three-year deal, he is then due $5.2 million in salary and bonuses in both 2016 and 2017 (including $4.1 million in guaranteed salary for 2016). All of that money goes on the Saints’ books.

All told, it’s as if the Saints signed Ellerbe to a three-year, $11.6 million contract in free agency with a total of $5.2 million guaranteed.

And from Ellerbe’s standpoint, he signed a three-year, $15.2 million deal with $8.8 million guaranteed -- not bad considering he was reportedly about to be released by the Dolphins before they made the trade.

So why didn’t Miami just cut Ellerbe instead? Presumably because they needed him as ammo to complete the deal for Saints receiver Kenny Stills, which also sent a third-round draft pick to New Orleans.

When you add in how much of the money Miami agreed to absorb, that definitely seems like a good return for Stills -- a fifth-round draft pick in 2013 -- even though the deal originally seemed like a bit of a head-scratcher since Stills is young, cheap and on the rise.

Ellerbe’s two-year stint in Miami was a big disappointment after he signed a five-year, $35 million contract in free agency. His 2013 season was OK -- but too ordinary compared to lofty expectations. Then he missed 15 games last season due to a hip injury.

The Saints are now banking that Ellerbe can come closer to his peak form from three seasons ago -- when he helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship. And they have at least one person in their front office -- new Saints college scouting director Jeff Ireland -- who can vouch for Ellerbe. Ireland was the Dolphins’ GM when they signed Ellerbe to that big contract in 2013.

Ellerbe wasn’t bad in 2013; he just wasn’t as outstanding as his contract demanded. He led the Dolphins with 101 tackles and had one sack, two interceptions and five pass defenses as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 system. But he reportedly was inconsistent against the run and critics knocked him for not making enough big plays.

Last season, the Dolphins moved Ellerbe to the outside in hopes he could use more of his athleticism and versatility as a pass-rusher and in pass coverage. But he suffered the hip injury in Week 1.

Ellerbe’s best season was 2012, when he emerged as a leader for the Ravens’ defense while fellow inside linebacker Ray Lewis missed most of the season with a triceps injury. That year, Ellerbe had 92 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the regular season and another 32 tackles and an interception in four playoff games -- including Baltimore’s Super Bowl win over San Francisco in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

That made Ellerbe one of the most coveted free agents on the market a month later (I remember writing about him as a possible target for the Saints in 2013). And now that he’s in New Orleans, Ellerbe could benefit from returning to an inside linebacker position in a 3-4 system -- though the Saints mix and match between 3-4 and 4-3 looks.

If healthy, Ellerbe should inject more athleticism into a veteran linebacking corps that was previously filled with guys who were better suited for run defense than pass rushing or pass coverage. But he’ll need to be an asset against the run as well, especially since the Saints released their best run-stuffing linebacker in Curtis Lofton last week.

Veterans David Hawthorne, Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber also remain parts of New Orleans’ linebacking corps -- as well as outside linebacker/defensive end Junior Galette and young backups Kasim Edebali, Ronald Powell, Kyle Knox and Jerry Franklin.