Why Transition-Tagged DE Olivier Vernon Will Be Giant Free-Agent Bust

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IMarch 5, 2016

Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) walks the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The 2016 NFL offseason continues to move forward, and we’re nearing one of the most exciting periods as free agency looms. Although free agency is a good opportunity to augment a roster, it’s also dangerous to overspend on mediocre talent. Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon is among the biggest names on the market but will end up being a major free-agency bust.

We’ve seen considerable free-agency splurges in the past fall on both sides of the fence. While the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have been successful at adding talent via this route, the Dolphins, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles have fallen on their faces in recent years. The key to successful free-agent shopping is marrying skill sets, value and fit together.

The fast-paced and high-stakes period can expose a franchise that hasn’t properly done its homework on how a player has amassed his production or projected to how he'll look in a new situation. For example, Player A may have 10 sacks, but those sacks need context. Did the player create the sack, or did he benefit from other disruptive forces along the front and was just cleaning up?

The difference between creative pass-rushers and those who clean up is massive. Not only value-wise but also in terms of longevity and effectiveness.

It’s relatively easy to spot creative pass-rushers, whether they are edge-rushers or interior linemen. These are the Von Millers, Ndamukong Suhs, Aaron Donalds, Cameron Wakes and Khalil Macks of the NFL. Of course, there are a few more throughout the league. But there aren’t many; this is the most valuable breed of defender.

Having covered Vernon as Bleacher Report’s Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist in 2014, I was stunned to see the contract he’s said to be looking for this offseason. According to Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero, Vernon would have used the $15.5 million franchise tag as his average yearly salary, had Miami assigned that tag to him. Instead, Miami chose to use the $12.7 million transitional tag, which is less protective for Miami but also establishes a lower floor for a potential new contract.

Working off that $12.7 million tag value, we can use other recent contracts given to pass-rushers to help provide context to what type of money he should get. Only seven defensive front-seven players average more than $12.7 million per year, and each is a household name because of his talent.

Top Pass-Rusher Contracts
PlayerPositionTeamAge At SigningYears of ContractTotal ValueAverage Annual Value
Ndamukong SuhDTMiami286$114,375,000$19,062,500
Justin HoustonOLBKansas City266$101,000,000$16,833,333
J.J. WattDEHouston256$100,005,425$16,667,571
Marcell DareusDTBuffalo256$96,574,118$16,095,686
Gerald McCoyDTTampa Bay276$95,200,000$15,866,667
Clay MatthewsLBGreen Bay275$66,000,000$13,200,000

The list shrinks even smaller if we consider Vernon to be looking for $15 million per year. Only Suh, Justin Houston, J.J. Watt, Marcell Dareus and Gerald McCoy average that much per year, which helps illustrate the tier of talent we’re discussing. These are the premium creators for their position.

At 25 years old, Vernon has never shown the talent to be considered that impactful. The former third-round pick has been productive for Miami, notching 29 career sacks in four seasons. His breakout 2013 campaign featured 11.5 sacks as Vernon showed a knack for creating pressure when he kicked inside to defensive tackle in nickel packages.

Miami stopped sliding Vernon inside after 2013 for some reason, and he struggled to be a full-time end. While he’s had 14 sacks in the last two seasons, the 6’2”, 275-pounder was often invisible for long stretches of the season. It’s not coincidental that he seemed to play his best when either Wake or Suh was collapsing the pocket.

I went back to look at Vernon’s 2015 tape to see whether he had evolved his game from a complementary rusher to a more dominating, creative rusher. On each sack, I took note of the situation of the play, including the score, down and distance, time on the clock, time it took for Vernon to bring the quarterback down and who caused the initial penetration. This helps give context to each sack and offer a better idea of his pure pass-rushing talent.

Let’s break down each of Vernon’s 7.5 sacks from 2015.


Sacks Created by Vernon

Vernon’s second sack of 2015 came in Week 8 against the New England Patriots. He aligned over the outside shoulder of Patriots left tackle Sebastian Vollmer on 1st-and-9 in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots leading 29-7. The game was in hand for the Patriots, and they were looking at finishing Miami with one more score.

Miami used defensive tackle No. 90, Earl Mitchell, as the “under” tackle to draw the double-team. This left Vernon alone on the edge, with enough space to work inside or outside of Vollmer. He adeptly used his hands to avoid Vollmer’s grip and worked around the edge for the sack.

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Vernon created this sack and finished it in 3.37 seconds.

His only other self-created sack in 2015 came against another top-tier tackle. Interestingly enough, his sack against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11 was also his only other sack completed on first down. The rest of his sacks came in obvious passing situations on third down.

With 5:23 left in the second quarter and Miami trailing 7-0, Vernon beat All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith in 3.91 seconds. The play-action fake from quarterback Tony Romo bought Vernon extra time, and he responded with a stutter-step speed swim to the outside shoulder of Smith. This was an impressive move from Vernon, especially considering the caliber of talent Smith is.

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Vernon had solid success against Smith in this game until Smith settled in the second half and used his length advantage. Smith didn’t seem to take Vernon overly serious until he realized Vernon could catch him napping.

Just two of Vernon’s sacks in 2015 were self-created, and his average time to reach the quarterback was 3.64 seconds. This is below-average, as Pro Football Focus has the median time until sack as 3.34 in 2015. While each play on its own is impressive and Vernon showed good quickness and hand usage, his time to complete the play is slow, and we have just two instances in an entire season.


Sacks Created By Suh

Two of Vernon’s sacks can directly be attributed to Suh’s initial pressure. The first came against the Baltimore Ravens, when Vernon matched up against backup left tackle James Hurst. He was so bad in his six-game starting stint for the Ravens that he was benched after Week 13 against Miami.

Regardless, let’s take a deeper look at Suh crashing off the strong side as a defensive end. Vernon is the wide-9 end in this play, again benefiting from a defensive tackle eating two blockers to create an island for the weak-side end. This time it's No. 97, Jordan Phillips, demanding the attention.

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As the play begins, Suh uses a powerful bull rush to put right tackle Ricky Wagner on skates into the lap of Matt Schaub. The quarterback unsurprisingly panics and drifts to his right, which allows Vernon to get back into the play. His speed rush had been washed out by Hurst, and he would have been too far behind the play. But Schaub’s drifting created an angle for Vernon to recover, and Suh made it so Schaub couldn’t step up.

This sack came on a 3rd-and-5 in the first-quarter of a 0-0 game. While that is a positive, the sack took 3.91 seconds, which is back in the danger zone of being too slow for a creator. Suh had initiated the pressure for Vernon in less than two seconds, which is why he is considered an elite player.

The second sack that Suh created for Vernon came against San Diego two weeks later. In the third quarter with the score 23-0 San Diego, Vernon made a sack in 4.98 seconds on a 3rd-and-3 play. This was the longest time it took Vernon to register a sack all season.

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Left tackle King Dunlap adequately pushed Vernon around the tackle box on his speed rush, and Vernon was unable to dip or bend to overcome the contact. That extra explosiveness rarely shows in his game, and it allowed Dunlap to easily handle his outside rush.

However, Vernon cleaned up after Philip Rivers moved up in the pocket and Suh powered the right guard right into the quarterback’s lap. Rivers was just wandering and trying to gather himself after being backed into. Although this is an impressive effort from Suh, Vernon earned a sack for doing very little.


Sacks Created by Derrick Shelby and Quinton Coples

Another two sacks from Vernon came Derrick Shelby and Quinton Coples. Both Shelby and Coples are free agents this offseason but are not considered as talented as Vernon. But what I saw out of Shelby was more impressive than Vernon, especially when considering run-stopping ability.

Vernon logged one quarterback takedown against the New York Jets in Week 12, and both Shelby and Coples were catalysts for the sack. With Miami down 21-0 with 6:58 left in the third quarter, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped back on 3rd-and-10. Miami aligned to one-gap with four defensive ends, and the Jets kept a back on Vernon’s side to chip.

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Coples won against his single blocker, which took advantage of Shelby’s successful bull rush from the weak side of the play. As Shelby forced Fitzpatrick to step up, Coples made it impossible for Fitzpatrick to move. Meanwhile, the running back’s chip on Vernon actually helped him break free from tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.

With Fitzpatrick desperately trying to escape from the closing pocket in front of him, Vernon just had to hit him from behind. In total, this sack took 3.71 seconds to complete.

For the other sack Shelby made possible, we go back to the Baltimore game for Vernon’s second sack of three total he was a part of. On 3rd-and-2 in the third quarter, Miami led 15-10 and was looking for a major stop. The defense used Suh as the double-team attraction to leave everyone else one-on-one.

As Schaub hits the top of his dropback, he hesitates to throw, as presumably no one is open. The extra second he takes to buy time ends up being a mistake, as Shelby crashes the edge on another bull rush. He shoves Wagner right into Schaub in the midst of his throwing motion, leaving Schaub to eat the pass.

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After Schaub brings the ball to his waist to secure it, Vernon finishes his speed move with a tackle. Vernon had fairly successfully navigated around Hurst by using lower-body flexion around the corner. Had Shelby not run into Schaub, Vernon would have overpursued the pocket and been out of the play. He didn’t win with a great angle and needed the mental gaffe from Schaub to make this sack.

A more aware and talented quarterback could have climbed the pocket as soon as Shelby had moved Wagner two steps into his body. Even one step forward would have eliminated Vernon from being a sack threat. This sack was Vernon’s second-fastest contested sack in 3.55 seconds.


Sacks from Offensive Line Error

That leaves us to look at the other 2.5 sacks on Vernon’s stat sheet in 2015. Each of these sacks came via significant offensive line mental errors or an entire unit's collapse. Let’s start with Vernon’s first sack of the season, which came at the expense of the Tennessee Titans.

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On 3rd-and-17 right before the two-minute warning at halftime, Miami ran a stunt with Vernon. Suh served as the crasher, creating a down angle that commanded the attention of the left guard and center. Suh’s presence forced a mental gaffe by the Titans, as Vernon simply ran up the middle for an easy sack. This play took just 2.74 seconds as he was never touched.

Vernon’s third and final sack against the Ravens came late in the game at a key moment. Up 15-13 with 5:42 on the clock on 3rd-and-11, Miami loaded the line of scrimmage with seven defenders. Baltimore was ill-equipped to handle all the pressure with just six blockers. Someone was going to come free.

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Vernon was the beneficiary, as Hurst chose to block safety Reshad Jones instead of Vernon. This gave him a direct line to Schaub, who was overwhelmed by the situation and decided to fall down instead of get rid of the ball. This was Vernon’s fastest sack of the season in just 2.24 seconds.

The final half-sack of the season came against the Patriots in Week 17. In the fourth quarter, Miami led 17-10 with just 5:57 remaining. The Patriots faced 3rd-and-14 and were stuck inside their own 20-yard line.

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Miami knew a pass was coming and again brought heat. Eight defenders were within two yards of the line of scrimmage, with seven blitzing. New England kept two backs to help protect, but it wasn’t enough. Three defenders converged on quarterback Tom Brady in just 3.19 seconds. This was a complete failure from the line, and it's hard to attribute success to one individual.

While these plays don’t represent the entirety of Vernon’s 2015 season, the context they provide is important. It’s clear Vernon is not a creative pass-rusher. His moments of isolated brilliance were rare throughout his first four seasons.

The argument for signing Vernon to such a rich contract may revolve around his youth (he's 25) and possible upside. Any such sell should be looked at with skepticism, though. After all, his average time to sack when he didn't have a free hit on the quarterback was 3.8 seconds. That's simply not good enough.

Vernon played with elite players such as Wake and Suh and spent his first three seasons with an excellent defensive line coach, Kacy Rodgers. Even with that support, his consistency and overall impact was average. There’s strong reason to believe his upside is limited, as well.

Vernon’s combine performance had mixed results, including the lack of short-area quickness and overall speed. This shows in his game as he struggles to win when pinning his ears back.

As seen in his sacks, Vernon is a functional third rusher. He brings good effort and has been durable to this point in his career. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s logged at least 850 snaps in each of the last three seasons. And while his run defense is inconsistent, his leverage has improved from earlier in his career.

But a team won't sign Vernon to be a major run-stopping presence. He’ll be expected to fill a bigger role for the money he’s looking for.

On top of a limited skill set, he made too many mental mistakes in a contract year. He was flagged for five roughing-the-passer penalties and one unsportsmanlike conduct, per NFLPenalties.com. His six 15-yard penalties almost negated his 7.5 sacks.

His low hit on Marcus Mariota injured the rookie quarterback and started a nasty trend of finishing plays at the knee level. There’s no excuse for such plays. His late hit against the Jacksonville Jaguars also sealed a Week 2 loss. He didn’t have these back-breaking mistakes in prior seasons, but it’s concerning that he lost his cool and lived up to the reputation that his teammate Suh had earned as a cheap-shot artist.

Vernon will benefit from a league-wide thirst for pass-rush help and a surplus of cap space. His list of suitors is deep, and he can be an effective role player in the right situation. Pairing him with one or two creative rushers would maximize his value.

As far as system, he fits best in a 4-3 under or 3-4 outside linebacker role. Defenses that are willing to move him inside to tackle on occasion can form a deadly sub-package as he’s too quick for most guards to handle. If there’s any area that can utilize Vernon better than Miami did, it’s in the nickel packages.

That limits who should be interested in Vernon. The Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers can get the most out of him if he leaves Miami.

It’s highly questionable whether Vernon should receive anything near the money he seems destined to earn, though. Barring a dramatic change in his physical makeup or level of technical refinement, he will be massively overpaid for what he is. By the end of his guaranteed seasons, Vernon will be viewed as one of the biggest busts in NFL free-agency history.


All stats used are from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.