Andy Cohen: New Linebackers Bring Aggression And Diversity

Posted Mar 13, 2013

Ellerbe and Wheeler could be exactly what the Dolphins defense needs.

Two linebackers. Both in the prime of their football lives. Both talented. Both productive. Both hungry for more success. Both athletic enough to give the Dolphins defense a more imposing look next season.

The signings of Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler so early in the free agency window showed me several things. It showed me that upgrading the defense is as much a priority as adding playmakers to the offense. It showed me an aggressive mindset by the Dolphins. It showed me a desire to be more diverse at linebacker, to have players who are skilled enough to cover some of the big-play tight ends in the AFC East.

Yes, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were good, solid players. Nobody is disputing that. But this is a tough business, a demanding business, a bottom line business. And the bottom line isn’t about comparing Dansby and Burnett to Ellerbe and Wheeler. The bottom line is doing everything within your means to put together a playoff team.

Ellerbe and Wheeler bring the Dolphins a little closer to that goal. For that reason alone, these moves made sense. Trust me when I tell you that this wasn’t some off-the-cuff decision; this was part of a well-calculated plan by Jeff Ireland and his staff, a plan that has taken shape over the past few months, a plan that is just beginning to unfold for all of us to see.

These are two impressive linebackers with similar styles.

I asked each to describe himself as a player.

Wheeler: “I'm aggressive like a shark, and it's ironic that I'm a Dolphin.”

Ellerbe: “I play like my hair is on fire. I’m aggressive. I’m a linebacker who can do whatever you ask him to do, whether it is blitzing or in coverage.”

See what I mean. They each bring the same type of temperament to this defense and a similar set of skills. There are more similarities other than the dreadlocks. Both are listed at 240 pounds. Both grew up in the South and went to college in Georgia. Both are eager to make a difference on this defense.

When Wheeler was on his flight to South Florida, he read online that the Dolphins signed Elerbee. “Another linebacker? I texted my agent and asked, “Are you sure I’m going to the right place?”

Yes, this is the right place. And very possibly the right time as well.

Let’s take a closer look at these two players.

Ellerbe’s signing sent shock waves around the league. He blossomed last season into one of the key pieces of a Super Bowl champion Ravens defense. The Ravens did not want to see him leave. Not with his stats. Not at his age. Not after the season he had in 2012. This is clearly a rising star and only because the Ravens are in salary cap purgatory were they not able come up with sufficient money.

Give Ireland credit for anticipating this scenario and for pouncing at precisely the right moment early in free agency. Give Ellerbe credit for having the faith to make this move when the easy way out would have been taking less money in Baltimore.

If you haven’t seen this young man play, you are in for a treat. He really has all the skills you are looking for and, at 27 years old, he is at the precise moment in his career when he is most desirable. Ellerbe possesses a rare combination of power and speed. I’m told by people who have seen him play that when he makes a tackle, you know it’s him. That’s how hard he hits. As far as style of play, there were already some early comparisons to Ray Lewis. Pretty heady stuff, don’t you think?

“It’s awesome to be part of a defense on the rise,” Ellerbe said. “I didn’t see me leaving Baltimore. The Dolphins showed how much they loved me and how much they wanted me and I couldn't turn them away.”

I haven’t gotten this first hand from the Dolphins, but I’ve got to believe that Ellerbe’s ability to cover tight ends – specifically New England’s tight ends – helped seal the deal. Ellerbe faced New England twice last season so he knows what to expect.

“Everybody wants a challenge,” he said. “I really like to make a difference.”

Ellerbe has yet to receive his Super Bowl ring from the Ravens, but was impressed with a conversation he had with Ireland. “He basically said to me, ‘we want to get what you got.’”

As for Wheeler, he was drafted by the Colts in 1998, too late to be a part of that team’s Super Bowl run. “But that’s my goal,” he said.

Wheeler also can cover the tight end, not to mention stop the run and rush the passer. “I take pride in everything,” he said. “I was aggressive last year and I’m going to bring the same aggression here.”

Ironically, Wheeler came in for a free agent visit last year and was impressed with Joe Philbin and his staff, though decided to sign with the Raiders. Fortunately for the Dolphins, it was just a one-year deal.

“I really believe I’m a good fit here,” he said.

Ellerbe and Wheeler. Did anybody see the Dolphins signing a pair of linebackers so early in free agency? But these are two players with proven resumes, two twenty-something players that have been brought together by a general manager who understands their value and potential impact.

Can’t wait to see what Ireland does next.
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