It's good to be a young and talented pass-rusher in today's National Football League. Profitable, too.
Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets. Malik Jackson of the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Olivier Vernon of the Miami Dolphins. All are scheduled to hit free agency March 9. All will likely make well in excess of $10 million in annual salary on their next contracts.
If recent reports are to be believed, that big payday may well come elsewhere for Vernon, but only after a tag-and-trade that will at least net the Dolphins some sort of return.
And that begs a couple of questions. Is the 25-year-old Vernon worth the windfall that a tag-and-trade (and the long-term contract that would certainly come on the back end) would bring? And if so, why aren't the Dolphins willing to pay it?
Of course, the Dolphins haven't totally given up hope on keeping Vernon, who had 61 tackles and 7.5 sacks a year ago, in the fold. At least that's what executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum told Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald:
We have options and so does he. We haven't made any decisions. We have a deadline coming up in another handful of days. We haven't made any decisions. We're just looking at options.
Again, we'll see. We have a few more days. We haven't finalized anything. We'll keep kicking around things. I'm sure we'll see his agent [David Canter] at some point and go from there.
However, according to Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com, those options on the Dolphins' end have now shifted to applying the franchise tag to Vernon and then shipping him out of town.
Granted, there are a couple of potential issues with this scenario. For starters, the tag number for Vernon's position is going to come in over $15 million per season. And as Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald points out, Vernon isn't going to forget that number when it comes time to negotiate a deal in his new home:
Then, as ESPN's Bill Barnwell tweeted, there's the not-so-small matter of leverage for the Dolphins. Or more appropriately, the lack of it:
There's a reason why the Dolphins are considering the slap-and-swap to begin with. They just don't have the cap space to keep Vernon. In fact, even after making a number of cuts, the Dolphins have the seventh-least wiggle room in the league at about $8.6 million, per Over The Cap.
That's the cost of a free-agent spending spree last year that was headlined by handing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh $19 million per season. Miami has more than $25 million per year tied up in Suh and veteran defensive end Cameron Wake.
The team is trying to work out an extension that would lower Wake's 2016 cap number, but even if it does, keeping Vernon would obligate about 20 percent of the total cap space in the defensive line.
Tagging Vernon would tie up even more. And every team in the NFL knows it. Miami could easily wind up holding the bag unless it is willing to settle for the draft-pick equivalent of a bag of Funyuns and a six-pack of Yoo-hoo in return.
Still, even a late-round pick would be something for the Fins. Because while Miami might not be able to afford to open its checkbook, there are teams that can:
That $40-50 million the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly is referring to is guaranteed money. And there are teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars ($80.1 million), Oakland Raiders ($74.5 million) and New York Giants ($58.9 million) that have both the need on the defensive line and the resources to absorb that salary.
And here's the thing: Unless the Dolphins can pull the proverbial rabbit out of their hats and make this tag-and-trade work—if $40-plus million in guarantees is what it takes to keep Vernon in Miami—then the team should bite the bullet, smile...
...and let Vernon walk.
There are all of two defensive ends in the NFL (J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Robert Quinn of the Los Angeles Rams) who currently play on contracts that will pay $40 million or more in guarantees. No one in their right mind would say that Vernon is on the same planet as Watt.
No one is.
And frankly, Vernon's resume doesn't compare favorably to Quinn's either.
|Robert Quinn vs. Olivier Vernon|
|Player||Years||Sacks||Forced Fumbles||QB Hits||Guaranteed $|
|Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, Spotrac|
Three times in five NFL seasons Quinn has topped 10 sacks, including an eye-popping 19 back in 2013. Vernon has done it only once in four tries, posting 11.5 that same season. Twice, Quinn has ranked in the top five in quarterback hits. Vernon has done it only once, leading the league by a large margin with 30 in 2015.
Yes, Vernon was Pro Football Focus' top-ranked 4-3 end in 2015. And he caught fire down the stretch, notching 5.5 sacks from Week 11 on. The problem is that before that, he had only two.
Vernon is a good young defensive end who can play both the run and the pass with equal vigor. It may well be that last year's near-misses portend an explosion in 2016. Or it could mean that Vernon is just that—a good defensive end but not a great one. An elite season in the sack column just may not be in the cards for him.
Recently, both Corey Liuget of the San Diego Chargers and Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints signed extensions that pay them over $10 million per season. Each received in the neighborhood of $30 million in guarantees.
You can argue that Vernon's production and potential rate a slightly better deal. Say five years, $60 million, with $35 million or so guaranteed. It's not a cheap contract by any stretch, but it's a fair one.
But if we start talking franchise tags at over $15 million for 2016, $40 million or better in guarantees and average annual salaries ending in teen, then Vernon's resume just doesn't hold up. We've passed fair and hit foolish. Gone from potential to pure hope. From calculated risk to full-on gamble.
As good as Vernon may be, if that's what it takes to sign him, the Dolphins should let another NFL team roll the dice.
Because given their cap situation, that's a risk they just can't afford to take.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.