In the biggest early surprise of NFL free agency, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has opted to leave Baltimore to sign a five-year, $35 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.
Before we dive into what this means for Miami, this is a massive loss for the Ravens. The Ravens lost Paul Kruger to Cleveland earlier Tuesday, traded Anquan Boldin to San Francisco earlier this week and likely will bid farewell to Ed Reed in free agency as well.
All that's on top of Ray Lewis' retirement -- the exact circumstance that left Ellerbe as such a key free agent. Now, the defending Super Bowl champs will head into 2013 without either of their starting inside linebackers; Jameel McClain and Albert McClellan likely would start there if the season began today, though the Ravens certainly will look in free agency and the draft for replacements.
Ellerbe ranked No. 12 on Peter King's list of the top 50 free agents, and the Ravens appeared to have enough money to re-sign him after getting Joe Flacco under contract and unloading Boldin's $6 million.
However, the aggressive Dolphins swooped in instead.
The mystery with regard to Miami is how that team plans to use Ellerbe. The Dolphins switched to a 4-3 prior to 2012 and, barring a move back to a 3-4 (which is possible), Ellerbe probably would have to slide to the strongside linebacker spot, where his shaky coverage skills could be hidden a bit. The alternative could be a release of Karlos Dansby, which would then allow Ellerbe to man the middle.
This is a bit of a gamble for the Dolphins, but there's little question that they scored one of the best players out there -- and did substantial damage to the Ravens in the process. Grade: B. Put an asterisk next to this one. Ellerbe is a very talented player and his athleticism will help Miami's defense. Until we see how the Dolphins plan to use him, though, the grade is a bit in flux.