METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints linebacker Dannell Ellerbe stood in front of his locker with a smile, showing an eagerness to talk about his health.
That's been subject in more ways than one since Ellerbe arrived in New Orleans last season. He's been with the club for 22 regular-season games, playing in just six last year and none so far this season.
''I'm feeling a lot better now,'' said Ellerbe, who has been sidelined since preseason with a quadriceps injury. ''I feel like I'm close and I'm happy.''
Asked if he felt well enough to play this weekend, Ellerbe responded, ''Oh, yeah,'' but also emphasized that coaches, in consultation with trainers, would make the final call.
Ellerbe, who was part of Baltimore's 2012 Super Bowl championship team before spending a pair of seasons with Miami, has been a top play-maker on the Saints' defense since he joined the club - when he's been able to play. In the few games he players last season, he was in on 39 tackles and credited with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and quarterback hurry.
His lack of availability on game days has made him a magnet for criticism on talk radio, mainly by frustrated fans who've questioned his toughness and drive.
Certainly, the Saints' defense, ranked 29th in the 32-team NFL, could use him - and Ellerbe insists he understands that better than anyone.
''I need to be out there. I missed too much time already,'' Ellerbe said.
As for those who've been critical of his motivation to return, he said, the ''first thing they don't understand is I'm not out here trying to get hurt.''
Mentioning his two young boys, Ellerbe said he understands that a continued lack of availability on game day represents a threat to his livelihood and the standard of living he wants to provide for his family long-term.
''I need this just as bad as anybody else in the locker room,'' Ellerbe said.
Ellerbe noted that he's tried numerous lifestyle changes in an effort to improve his health.
''I changed everything about my diet and now I did a lot of steps to stay from being in the training room,'' Ellerbe said.
Ellerbe described his diet as ''very strict,'' noting that he eats only organic foods that fight inflammation, such as bison, sweet potato and halibut fried in peanut oil. He also hired a personal chef and dietitian in the past year.
He said his primary goals in doing so were to improve his general health and recovery from the physical toll football takes on the body, as well as to reduce his reliance on anti-inflammatory and pain medicine.
''Now, I feel like I'm close,'' Ellerbe said. ''I mean, we don't want to do nothing prematurely, but I feel like I'm good.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP-NFL