Back to sleeper? Dannell Ellerbe back 'home' as Saints' weakside linebacker

METAIRIE, La. -- It's hard to consider a guy who helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win in 2012 before signing a $35 million contract with the Miami Dolphins as a "sleeper" or "dark horse."

But that's what linebacker Dannell Ellerbe feels like now that he has joined the New Orleans Saints.

The 29-year-old has dipped off the radar a bit, thanks to a pedestrian season in 2013 and a hip injury that sidelined him for 15 games in 2014. Ellerbe almost seemed like an afterthought when he came to New Orleans, along with a third-round draft pick, in a trade for receiver Kenny Stills.

It's evident, though, when you hear the Saints' coaches talk about Ellerbe that he was more than an afterthought to them.

"The whole staff including [Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis], we all watched him. And he's a guy that jumped off the tape when he was playing," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "Now, I know he missed a lot of games last year. He played one game and ran with [New England Patriots tight end Rob] Gronkowski stride for stride with him every step of the way in that game.

"And the years before that he won a Super Bowl, played for a great friend of mine who loves him [Ravens linebackers coach Don "Wink" Martindale]. And I expect a heck of a football player, and he's gonna be."

For his part, Ellerbe said he's excited to finally be back "home" in the Saints' defense.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder has made no secret about the fact that he prefers playing the weakside "Will" linebacker position, like he did in Baltimore. But he hasn't really gotten the chance to do it since.

The Dolphins moved Ellerbe to the "Mike" middle linebacker spot in 2013. He still had 101 tackles, two interceptions and a sack, but he didn't consistently make the kind of explosive impact plays that he or the team envisioned.

Then when Miami moved Ellerbe back to his favored position in 2014, he suffered the injury in Week 1.

"That second season, I had it all down pat, I knew both positions, and I was going back to my home position that I was comfortable at, and I was playing good," said Ellerbe, who is again playing the weak side in New Orleans.

The Saints' defense is a 3-4 base, like the one Ellerbe was a part of in Baltimore, though the Saints mix and match between 3-4 and 4-3.

"It don't matter if it's 3-4 or 4-3, as long as I get to play the weak side, I'm good," Ellerbe said. "I get to show my athleticism out there and do a couple things, blitz, cover, instead of just playing in the middle and doing coverage. I really didn't blitz the last time I played.

"I'll take an interception over a sack, but I like sacks, too."

Ellerbe, who went undrafted out of Georgia in 2009, had 4.5 sacks during his breakout season with the Ravens in 2012, when he stepped into a prime role after Ray Lewis was injured. Ellerbe also had an interception in the AFC Championship Game.

The Saints have lacked that kind of dynamic playmaking ability from the weakside linebacker spot for years. So they'd love it if Ellerbe can pick up where he left off at from that Super Bowl season -- which happened to end in New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Ellerbe said he feels like there's "no question about it, no doubt about it" that he can.

Ellerbe took a measured approach to his rehab this summer, increasing his workload each week until he was back to full participation in team drills for last week's veteran minicamp.

"There was no reason to rush it. We want it to be ready by the season, so we took it slow just to make sure it will heal properly," Ellerbe said. "I feel like it's going good. I'm taking all the reps that they're giving me. I'm feeling minimal pain or soreness or stiffness, so I feel like I'll be ready."

Payton talks often about having a "vision" for new players and where they'll fit on the roster.

I asked Payton if it was difficult to have that vision for Ellerbe, since he's moved around positions and suffered the injury.

"I hear ya. But it was not," Payton said, explaining the Saints saw him as a Will. "We thought he had real good transition, real good feet, good short-area quickness ... good instincts.

"I think the bigger question was, 'Where is he at in his rehab?" And once he visited and had a physical, and we got an idea from his doctors and then had a plan through this offseason, we put that in place."

The Saints drafted another athletic inside linebacker, Clemson's Stephone Anthony, in Round 1.

Anthony is competing with veteran David Hawthorne at the Mike linebacker spot. But all three guys are essentially fighting for two starting jobs since Hawthorne could also slide over to the Will, where he spent the past three seasons.

Ellerbe said he's not looking over his shoulder, though.

"Nah," Ellerbe said. "As long as I'm healthy I know that I'll have a spot on the team and be able to play."