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We will take a look at these two players together instead of individually, since they were acquired by the Dolphins in a pair to replace another pair of linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.
One of the reasons Ellerbe and Wheeler were tabbed to replace Dansby and Burnett is because of their pass rush success at their previous stops. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle operates an aggressive scheme which often blitzes linebackers, or shows the threat of blitz from linebackers presnap.
Pro Football Focus has a “Pass Rush Productivity” statistic which is purely a function of the number of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries the pass rusher has produced relative to the number of times he has rushed the passer. Philip Wheeler ranks No.6 among the 23 outside linebackers in the 4-3 that have at least 10 pass rush reps. He appears to be the player the Dolphins imagined him to be, in this regard.
On the other hand, among the 26 qualifying inside linebackers, Dannell Ellerbe ranks dead last in this pass rush efficiency measure. His predecessor Dansby, now with the Arizona Cardinals, ranks No.13 in the group of 26 players.
On film, Ellerbe’s size comes into play when he is rushing the passer. He is sudden and disguises his blitzes well, but he is easily absorbed by offensive linemen and has far too little success against backfield protectors.
The early returns suggest that while Wheeler’s success as a blitzer may have been inherent to his nature as a player, Ellerbe’s success as a blitzer may have been driven by his surroundings in Baltimore.
A big measure for linebackers involves tallying up their missed tackles. Pro Football Focus creates a “Tackle Efficiency” number which is a simple function of how many tackles you have versus how many tackles you missed on tape.
Amongst inside linebackers with at least 60 snaps on the season, Ellerbe ranks only No.37 out of 49 in this measure, as he’s missed five tackles while tallying 31 total tackles. Wheeler has not done any better, as he ranks No.22 out of 30 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers in the same measure.
On film, missed tackles have been a big problem among Miami’s linebackers. The poor play of Ellerbe and Wheeler is a big part of the reason the Dolphins defense has allowed 4.7 yards per carry on the ground, which ranks No.27 in the NFL according to ESPN’s team statistics.
The final category for which we can evaluate the pair is coverage. Unfortunately, Wheeler does not come out well in this category. On film we have seen him give up touchdowns to tight end Jordan Cameron and tailback Jason Snelling, as well as some big plays to tight end Coby Fleener. He ranks No.17 among the 19 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 60 snaps in coverage in terms of yards given up per coverage snap. He ranks No.18 out of 19 in yards per attempt in his direction.
Fortunately Ellerbe has ranked much better in this regard, though it should be noted that his coverage responsibilities have not been as onerous as those of Miami’s strong side linebacker Wheeler. Ellerbe ranks No.12 of 38 qualifying inside linebackers in yards per coverage snap. He ranks No.2 out of 38 in the category of yards per attempt.
Contracts: 5 years, $60.75 million
Grade: Needs Improvement