Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was the Patriots’ nemesis when he was a member of the Ravens last year, finishing with nine tackles and 1.5 sacks in their 31-30 win in September and securing a fourth-quarter interception to seal their 28-13 win the AFC Championship Game.
Ellerbe isn’t a Raven anymore, but he’s still one of the Patriots’ biggest rivals after the Dolphins swooped in and stole him away in free agency for $14 million guaranteed over the next two seasons. And when asked by CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman if the Patriots are vulnerable this year – they lost Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski is injured – Ellerbe wasn’t afraid to say yes.
“I think they are, but you have to prove it, you can't just talk about it,” Ellerbe told Freeman. “I don't think you can say the Patriots are the same as before, after what happened to Hernandez.”
The Patriots, of course, have won 10 of the last 12 AFC East titles, including the last four in a row. And they have beaten the Dolphins six games in a row, and in eight of the last nine matchups.
But the Dolphins, entering Year 2 under quarterback Ryan Tannehill, believe they finally may be able overtake the Patriots this year after spending more than $98 million guaranteed in free agency.
Ellerbe, 27, is one of the big reasons for the optimism. The Dolphins view Ellerbe as a younger and much more aggressive upgrade to former middle linebacker Karlos Dansby who can attack Tom Brady and help slow down the Patriots’ running game.
Ellerbe had 92 tackles and 4.5 sacks at inside linebacker for Baltimore last season, and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the third-best pass rusher among 53 inside linebackers in 2013, one spot ahead of Brandon Spikes.
“I was brought here to help knock them off,” said Ellerbe. “That doesn't mean we will, but we feel like we can. Like I said, we just have to prove it. You have to actually go do it.”
Ellerbe, entering his fifth NFL season after going undrafted out of Georgia in 2009, did show a lot of respect for the Patriots’ offense, however.
“Our mentality whenever we played them was to keep fighting,” Ellerbe said. “They were so good offensively that they would score and try to get up big on you. We felt like if we just kept fighting, eventually we could get inside their heads.”