The Baltimore Ravens know how hard it is to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. One of the biggest reasons is the NFL salary cap, which limits the champs abilities to re-sign their free agents, who now can add that one valuable line to their football resume: "Super Bowl Champion."
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was one of the brightest stars on the Ravens defense this year and the difference between how well the unit did with versus without him was as much, if not more evident, than when Ray Lewis was or was not in the lineup. According to a story on Giants 101, Ellerbe might be a great fit to target once free agency begins.
Ellerbe finished 2nd on the team in tackles, despite missing three regular season games. The 27 year old, with four seasons under his belt, has proven he should be re-signed by the team and become the next great Ravens undrafted linebacker. Ellerbe was sharing time with fellow undrafted LB Jameel McClain before McClain's season was cut short and he was placed on IR, opening a full-time position for Dannell, which he definitely took advantage of the opportunity.
At 6'1" and 240 pounds, he is built perfectly for the position in the team's 3-4 defense, quick sideline-to-sideline, while able to both rush the passer (4.5 sacks) as well as drop back into coverage (2 passes defensed). He added one forced fumble but his biggest play might have been the interception he grabbed off of a tipped Tom Brady pass deep in Ravens territory in the AFC Championship Game.
Originally thought to be a mid--round draft pick coming out of the University of Georgia in 2009, injuries and off-the-field concerns dropped him out of the draft until the Ravens called and signed him to a free agent contract, once again proving the amazing abilities of the team's scouting department.
Ellerbe should be an attractive option around the league when free agency starts in early March, and could easily bolt for the big contract rather than perhaps accept a home-team discount to remain with the defending champs. The Ravens are up against the salary cap and the biggest obstacle will be for the team to figure out how to retain their free agents after the signing of QB Joe Flacco, which will ultimately determine how much they will have remaining under the cap and who will be the next priority.
Dannell, along with OLB Paul Kruger, CB Cary Williams, FS Ed Reed, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, will be evaluated to decide what order that priority list will be. Players currently under contract, but with high cap numbers, will have to be part of that decision-making process and include WR Anquan Boldin, FB Vonta Leach, WR/KR Jacoby Jones, and safety Bernard Pollard.
Regardless of the team's needs, finances will have to play the key role in deciding who should stay and who should be let go to test the waters of free agency. Greed and the desire to play with a winner will be the battle each of these players may have to balance from their side of the bargaining table.
However, the Ravens are obviously losing one of the best linebackers to ever play the game in Ray Lewis and retaining his inside linebacking partner, Dannell Ellerbe, would be a great start to ensuring consistency and a solid presence in the middle of the team's defense for years to come.