Olivier Vernon Could Be NFL's Best Pass-Rusher on the Open Market

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2016

Oct 26, 2014; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) tackles Jacksonville Jaguars running back Denard Robinson (16) at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Richard Dole-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Dole-USA TODAY Sports

What is the top-rated defensive end worth in free agency these days? If Olivier Vernon hits the open market, we are about to find out. 

Miami’s standout pass-rusher has toiled in Cameron Wake’s and, more recently, Ndamukong Suh’s shadow along that defensive line, but three-straight solid seasons, highlighted by the top rating at his position in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus, has him in the free-agent limelight.

The former Hurricane might have had just 7.5 official sacks, but PFF credited him with 81 total quarterback pressures—second-most among 4-3 defensive ends. Only Denver’s Von Miller, Houston’s J.J. Watt and Seattle’s Michael Bennett had more at any position.

Other than Miller, who should be tendered with Denver’s franchise tag and ultimately signed to a massive extension, Vernon is the best pass-rusher set to hit free agency.

Vernon's Career Statistics
YearSacksTklAstPFF RankSnapsRatingPFF SacksQB HitsQB HurriesStops
Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus

That is not to say Vernon is necessarily in Miller’s league. As good as he was in 2015, he was never quite the difference-maker the Super Bowl MVP has proven to be throughout his career.

Vernon has also been criticized for making bone-headed decisions on the field and seems to take plays off from time to time, much like defensive line-mate Suh has been picked up for throughout his career. Still, the good far outweighs the bad—no player is without flaws.

While letting a premier pass-rusher just entering his prime seems like an awful idea, the Dolphins may not have a choice. 

General manager Mike Tannenbaum is fairly spendthrift, and that much is evident in the massive deal he gave Suh a year ago. His free-spending ways along with owner Steve Ross’ willingness to throw money into a dumpster fire have the Dolphins scrambling to open up cap space.

Miami is near the bottom of the list in that department heading into the offseason.

Granted, plenty of relief is available with roster moves and contract restructuring, but much of that would require kicking the can down the road. The Dolphins also have the franchise tag available to them, though Tannenbaum said they are undecided on using it, per Al Diaz 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.

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 at some point and go from there.

Rumors are also swirling that Miami could tag and trade Vernon, per Jordan Raanan of NJ.com. That is a rarity, though the Minnesota Vikings pulled that off with defensive end Jared Allen not too long ago.

So Vernon, who broke out in his sophomore season with 11.5 sacks and continued to be well-liked by advanced metrics, has a legitimate shot to cash in when free agency hits. The salary cap is expected to increase to $155 million, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (h/t NFL.com). This means there are several teams with a ton of cap space to burn.

Among those who could sorely use Vernon’s services are the two teams that have the most cap space—Jacksonville and Oakland.

The Jaguars have some experience in signing away Miami’s standout players—last offseason saw Jacksonville ink defensive tackle Jared Odrick to a big deal after the Dolphins spent so much money on Suh.

Oakland, meanwhile, continues to build slowly under general manager Reggie McKenzie, who has been reticent to spend big on individual players despite so much cap space opening up under his care in recent years. If the Raiders are going to make a leap, they had better start pursuing guys like Vernon.

There are plenty of other teams who would be interested in signing Vernon, which would drive up his price. Pass-rushers are second to quarterbacks in value in today's NFL, and Vernon should strike it rich as a result.