Olivier Vernon Is Prized Gem Giants Needed for Totally Revamped Defensive Line

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 10, 2016

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2015, file photo, Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) walks off the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Defensive end Olivier Vernon's transition tag has been removed by the Dolphins, allowing him to become a free agent hours after the team signed Mario Williams as a replacement. The transition tag was for $12.734 million, but the Dolphins withdrew the offer Wednesday, March 9, 2016, making it likely Vernon will depart after four seasons in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

It’s a great time to be a 25-year-old pass-rusher whose services are available to the highest bidder. Which means it’s a great day to be Olivier Vernon.

Vernon entered free agency as not just the best player available at his position but arguably the best player available overall. He’s a young, quickly blossoming talent. Those two attributes alone are enough to dump mounds of money into his bank account, given the NFL's current financial climate.

The league is swimming in money after the salary cap skyrocketed by nearly $12 million. So when Vernon entered a free-agency jungle featuring eight teams with at least $39 million to spend, it didn’t seem possible to be surprised by the elephant-sized dollar figure that would come next.

Yet here we are, struggling to absorb this strange new world where Vernon will earn more guaranteed money than the Texans’ J.J. Watt.

The New York Giants signed Vernon to a record-breaking five-year contract. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport has the details:

NFL Network @nflnetwork

5 years. Worth $85M. $52.5M guaranteed. Wow. Olivier Vernon is headed to the @Giants. (via @RapSheet) https://t.co/nPQ4Iop48U

The deal sets a new standard for the guaranteed money given to a defensive player. And as Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com also notes, Vernon has established a fresh watermark for the highest cash flow over the first three years of a contract for any defensive player.

It would be easy to shrug, look at all the cap-rich teams again and assume this was inevitable. And that’s probably true, but please recall Watt signed his extension worth $51.8 million guaranteed just one year ago, when cash certainly wasn’t a problem around the league.

This contract is the latest and highest spike, and it was pushed by a team that desperately needed to land the sparkling defensive gem of free agency.

The Giants’ pass rush in 2015 was putrid. Injuries played a significant role in their front seven's decline to Swiss cheese status, especially when defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul appeared in only eight games. The Giants also re-signed him Wednesday, though Pierre-Paul’s long-term effectiveness following his fireworks incident still remains somewhat uncertain.

Opposing quarterbacks often felt far too warm and cozy in the pocket against a defense that recorded just 23 sacks in 2015 (30th), which was a massive tumble after posting 47 sacks in 2014 (fourth).

The Giants needed to both support and complement Pierre-Paul. They quickly accomplished those goals during the first day of free agency. Well, on paper they did at least, and we all know March champions always hold a trophy high in February, too.

Rotoworld’s Evan Silva broke down the Giants’ new-look defensive line, which suddenly contains a whole lot more run-stuffing girth:

Evan Silva @evansilva

#Giants revamped Front Four: LE Jason Pierre-Paul DT Damon "Snacks" Harrison DT Johnathan Hankins RE Olivier Vernon

That middle run plugging comes from defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who was also part of the Day 1 free-agency haul. He’s another critical asset signed to address a core weakness after the Giants’ run defense gushed in 2015, allowing 121.4 yards on the ground per game.

But Vernon is the crown jewel, and he was already maturing into a consistent defensive difference-maker.

He’s recorded 29 sacks over four seasons and 64 games, which may not sound impressive. Then you remember sacks often tell only a partial story.

Vernon is a complete defender who excels as a pass-rusher and against the run while containing the edge. The Giants had a swirling black hole to fill in both of those areas. Now they get two for the (massive) price of one.

In 2015 Vernon finished with 35 run stops, according to Pro Football Focus. That led all 4-3 defensive ends, and it wasn’t close. The Rams’ Williams Hayes was far back in second with 26 stops.

Vernon is truly terrifying when chasing the quarterback. He was one of just two 4-3 defensive ends to finish with 80-plus pressures in 2015; his 81 were behind only the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, again per PFF.

The challenge now for Vernon, and his next trick? Taking the bounding leap while rising to another plateau.

He’ll have to do more than merely stay at his current level of play to justify a record-setting, Watt-level contract. He’ll need to become a marquee, top-tier pass-rusher worthy of market-leading dollars. And he’ll have to become a franchise cornerstone instantly.

No pressure, young man.


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