The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can mold the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.
Many in the Miami media have denounced the Dolphins for allowing defensive end Olivier Vernon to slip away in free agency. Those same reporters have been equally critical of what they see as the team’s ill-conceived plan to replace the talented 27 year-old with Mario Williams, an aging star who was booted out of Buffalo due, in part, to a poor attitude. Nevertheless, new head coach Adam Gase remains secure in the belief that the Dolphins played their hand extremely well in this game of musical chairs, to the point that they did not merely replace a cog along their defensive line, but improved upon it.
“I feel like you’re going to see a different guy with us,” Gase said of Williams while speaking to media at the NFL owners meetings earlier this year. “I feel that way. [Defensive coordinator] Vance [Joseph] has worked with him before. The guys that he’s going to be playing with this year, I feel like he feels comfortable with that group. I think you’re going to see a different player this year.”
“I think you’re going to see a different player this year.”
Williams seems equally confident about putting together a successful season alongside perennial Pro Bowlers, Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake.
“I think the sky is definitely the limit for us,” said Williams, speaking to ESPN’s James Walker. “We are not going to put numbers on anything. We just want to come out and work every day and, like I said, get to know each other, get to know how we play, get to know how we communicate, body language and so forth, and just come out and execute.”
To better understand the logic behind Gase’s vision for the Dolphins’ defensive line, as well as the team’s decision to move on from Olivier Vernon, we must first acknowledge that DEs in the NFL are valued, first and foremost, for their ability to be disruptive juggernauts wreaking havoc upon opposing quarterbacks, at the line of scrimmage and along the edge. Yet, in the case of Vernon, or OV, as he is affectionately known in south Florida, any notion of a one-man hurricane is little more than media hype. Furthermore, as the evidence will show, he is not as good a fit in Vance Joseph’s aggressive defensive scheme as Williams should prove to be.
That is not to say that Vernon isn’t a good player. He is, in fact, a very good defensive end. The Dolphins simply do not consider him a game changer, or the kind of elite superstar worth the 5 year, $85 million payday he received from the New York Giants, a massive contract that leverages that team’s future for years to come.
To establish a more accurate assessment of Vernon’s true value and, subsequently, the wisdom of Miami’s choice to not match the Giant’s contract offer, I compared 13 of the NFL’s top defensive ends from 2012, the year Vernon came into the NFL, through 2015. The players in this survey, which were measured across five impact categories, included Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan, Calais Campbell, DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt, Jared Allen, Jerry Hughes, Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones, Michael Bennett, as well as current Dolphins Mario Williams and Cameron Wake, and, of course, Vernon himself. For the sake of accuracy, I excluded players with fewer years in the league than Vernon. Below are the results in each of the five categories over the previously stated period of time.
|SOLO TACKLES||SACKS||FORCED FUMBLES||FUMBLES RECOVERED||PASSES DEFENDED|
|Watt – 250||Watt – 69||Quinn – 16||Watt – 12||Watt – 41|
|Campbell – 189||Quinn – 45||Watt – 15||Jordan – 7||Pierre-Paul – 21|
|Vernon – 137||Williams – 43||Wake – 12||Pierre-Paul – 4||Jordan – 18|
|Pierre-Paul – 137||Wake – 42||Jones – 10||Ware – 3||Campbell – 18|
|Jones – 134||Jordan – 38||Bennett – 10||Allen – 3||Allen – 16|
|Jordan – 133||Jones – 36||Ware – 8||Bennett – 3||Quinn – 12|
|Quinn – 126||Ware – 35||Hughes – 7||Campbell – 3||Williams – 10|
|Hughes – 126||Bennett – 34.5||Jordan – 6||Wake – 2||Jones – 9|
|Allen – 124||Allen – 31||Williams – 5||Williams – 2||Hughes – 7|
|Williams – 116||Hughes – 29||Allen – 5||Hughes – 2||Wake – 5|
|Bennett – 116||Vernon – 29||Pierre-Paul – 4||Quinn – 2||Ware – 3|
|Ware – 115||Campbell – 27.5||Vernon – 3||Jones – 2||Bennett – 2|
|Wake – 105||Pierre-Paul – 22||Campbell – 2||Vernon – 0||Vernon – 0|
While Vernon scored well against the run in our survey, he didn’t register as much of a factor against the passing game or in creating turnovers. Additionally, his numbers are not overly impressive when analyzed on a per-game basis. Below is a breakdown of the average impact plays the defensive ends in our survey made on a per-game basis over the last four years, including safeties, interceptions and touchdowns.
2012-2015IMPACT PLAYS PER GAMEPRO BOWLS 2012-2015Watt646.094Campbell594.092Pierre-Paul513.761Quinn563.582Jones553.501Jordan643.172Wake543.093Ware562.963Allen622.901Williams632.792Hughes642.680Vernon642.640Bennett642.601
These results suggest three significant conclusions:
- That the Giants made a grave mistake in granting Vernon a contract widely considered superior to J.J. Watt’s deal, particularly given that the Texan standout’s dominant results leave little doubt that he is the undisputed best DE in the league. In fact, Watt registered more than twice as many impact plays per game as Vernon.
- OV’s results, particularly against the pass, lag behind most of his elite peers, which affects his value in a primarily passing league. For example, 30% of Mario Williams’ impact plays were against the pass. Cameron Wake was just behind at 29%, while only 17% of Vernon’s impact plays came against the passing game.
- Lastly, these results leave little doubt that the Dolphins made very shrewd moves in the wake of Vernon’s departure. By spending essentially the same annual amount as the Giants are investing in OV, they secured the services of two four-time Pro Bowl defensive ends in Wake and Williams, both of whom have outperformed Vernon. Equally as important, Miami’s investment in these veterans is for just two years, while the Giants, in turn, are locked into Vernon through 2020.
Given these conclusions, this would be a good time to revisit the fact that Vance Joseph will be implementing an aggressive, press-style defense intended to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. Yet, with Byron Maxwell as the only cornerback with significant NFL experience, this scheme could prove to be a “feast or famine” scenario. As such, Joseph will be looking to put as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as possible, forcing them to release the ball quickly in order to take the pressure off his inexperienced CBs. In this kind of defense, Mario Williams is a far better fit than Olivier Vernon. Over the span of Williams’ 10 year career, he has averaged a sack every game and a half and finished a season with double digit sacks on five occasions. In contrast, Vernon has only managed a sack every 2.2 games, and aside from 2013, when he tallied 11.5 sacks, has never scored more than 7.5 QB takedowns in a season.
In spite of this, some in the media have felt compelled to argue that Vernon’s youth makes him a more valuable commodity than either Williams or Wake. Yet, to do so is to deny what our examination clearly shows, that, despite being in the prime of his career, OV is not playing at a higher level than either aging star. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe he ever will. Williams, on the other hand, while older than Vernon, is only 31, and as Wake has shown, a good defensive end can remain productive well into his mid-thirties. Beyond Wake, there have been a slew of defensive ends older than Williams who have reached double digit sack totals, including some on multiple occasions. Among them, Richard Dent, Julius Peppers, Michael Strahan, Bruce Smith, Robert Mathis, Reggie White, Chris Doleman, and Miami’s own, Jason Taylor. As such, there was no logical argument to justify keeping Vernon at the exorbitant price the free agency market demanded when he could be replaced with a better fit at significantly lower cost.
To truly understand how grossly overpaid Vernon will be moving forward, as well as the intelligence with which Miami handled his departure, it is not enough to compare his production with that of his peers. We need to analyze the specifics of their deals as well. To that end, consider that if OV continues at his current annual sack rate of 7.25 per season over the length of his new contract, the Giants will be paying him a staggering $2,344,827 per sack.
By comparison, if the same holds true of Mario Williams, who averages 9.6 sacks per season, the Dolphins will be reimbursing him at a mere $885,416 per sack.
Better still, in the case of Wake, and his 10 sacks per season, Miami will be compensating him to the tune of $750,000 per sack. To put that into perspective, the Giants will be paying Vernon more than three times what Wake earns for only 72.5% of his production as a pass rusher.
Moreover, the savings the Dolphins managed in this affair will make it easier to sign future free agents such as Pro Bowlers Reshad Jones, Jarvis Landry and possibly, Kiko Alonso, and as we shall later see, it has already made it possible to add versatility and depth to their defensive line.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to support the Dolphins’ reasoning in this scenario, there is a case to be made that Miami could have resigned Olivier Vernon prior to the 2015 season for considerably less money than he received from the Giants. While that is possible, it is also not unreasonable to wonder if Vernon would have represented a good value for the Dolphins, even at a reduced price. After all, while much has been made of his play during the last half of 2015, those in Miami’s front office surely asked themselves why they hadn’t seen that kind of effort from him before the final two months of a contract year. In fact, they may have even questioned the true extent of OV’s late season heroics, particularly considering he finished the year with just a half a sack more than Wake, a player who was out for half the season! Then there is the matter of Vernon’s alarming rise in roughing the passer penalties last season, the most careless of which played key roles in two Miami loses.
In addition to being fined for $37,363 for two hits against Marcus Mariota, Vernon was flagged five times during 2015 for roughing the passer, and once for unnecessary roughness. In fact, he was penalized a total of 10 times last season for 110 yards. That is a staggering figure considering he was only flagged 7 times from 2012-2014 for a mere 41 yards.
More sobering still, Cameron Wake has been penalized just 9 times for 60 yards in his entire seven year career, while Mario Williams has been flagged 20 times for 136 yards over his 10 seasons. Even worse, in their 17 combined seasons, Wake and Williams have be penalized for roughing the passer a grand total of 4 times, 1 less than Vernon last season alone.
Even Ndamukong Suh, who is notorious for a history of fines and suspensions that have earned him the title of “Dirtiest Player in the NFL” on multiple occasions, has never been flagged more than once in a season for roughing the passer. Of his 13 penalties last season, none were for roughing the passer. In fact, all of them were for 5 yards or less.
Beyond the penalty issues, Vernon has never made the Pro Bowl. Nor, as our survey showed, has he snagged an interception, scored a touchdown, recovered a fumble, or managed a safety. In fact, the former Miami Hurricane has yet to bat down a single pass in the NFL, an almost incomprehensible feat for someone who has started 64 games. Hardly statistics worthy of a J.J. Watt style contract.
Based on what we have seen thus far, it is reasonable to conclude that the Dolphins improved their squad both in the short and long term by replacing Vernon with Williams because, in doing so, they bought themselves some time to address the defensive end position through the draft. Williams, for his part, enters the 2016 season with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove following a sub-par year in Buffalo, where he was a poor fit in Rex Ryan’s new defensive scheme. Meanwhile, Vernon is off to New York, where the Giants must now pray the $85 million they have invested in him will be enough to stimulate the youngster into becoming the kind of disruptive force he has never been.
In the meantime, Miami has used some of the surplus from the departures of Vernon and back up DE Derrick Shelby to add depth along the line, bringing in veteran defensive ends, 29 year-old Jason Jones and 26 year-old Andre Branch, to compete with Terrence Fede and Chris McCain. Branch may even take significant playing time away from Wake given his youth and talent as a run stuffer.
|PLAYER||GAMES STARTED||PASSES DEFENDED||FORCED FUMBLES||FUMBLES RECOVERED||SACKS||SOLO TACKLES|
For his part, McCain has shown flashes despite being badly misused by previous coaching staffs, and that is an issue Gase intends to correct.
“Right now, we’re looking to put him at defensive end. We’re trying to put him in a position to where he can stay in one spot and roll,” said Gase, according to the team’s official site. “That’s what we’re looking to do. I think for him, it’s going to be … At least he’ll know where he’s at, so he doesn’t have to worry about, ‘I’m going to keep bouncing back and forth.’ That’s what we’re looking to do to start. Hopefully, we can just stick with that plan.”
Jones and Fede, on the other hand, are versatile players capable of moving inside to play tackle in support of Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips. That versatility bodes well for both as far as making the final 53-man roster, given the new coaching staff’s desire to stack the team with players who can handle more than one position.
"“Earl, Suh and Jordan, we’re gonna rely heavily on those guys, along with some other guys. ” defensive line coach Terrell Williams explained to Max Bultman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “But on the defensive line, I think sometimes you look and see who goes out with the starters, and it doesn’t really matter. Because, [when I was] in Oakland, we had guys who didn’t start that played more than the starters.”"
While coach Williams is looking to rotate his linemen throughout the game, there is one player whom Gase would love to see on the field as much as possible……..the aforementioned, Ndamukong Suh, the cornerstone of the Dolphins’ defense.
Suh’s mastery in the middle cannot be fully appreciated through statistics alone. Yet, his number are, nonetheless, impressive, particularly when one takes into account that the four-time Pro Bowler has spent his career fighting off double, and even triple teams. To put his dominance into perspective, consider that Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy, both four-time Pro Bowlers themselves, came into the league in 2010, the same year as Suh. Since then, Atkins has made 201 impact plays, while McCoy has racked up 198.5. Yet Suh leaves them both in the dust with a whopping 286 impact plays, including an interception and a safety, unheard of numbers for an interior lineman. And while last season was considered a slightly off year for the behemoth, given the turmoil in Miami with the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, he still managed 6 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 41 QB hurries.
As the following clip illustrates, Suh is the kind of player that makes those around him more effective by drawing the attention of multiple linemen.
Additionally, as we see here, beyond his incredible power and blazing speed, there is an intimidation factor to Suh’s game that is impossible to quantify.
|PLAYER||GAMES STARTED||PASSES DEFENDED||FORCED FUMBLES||FUMBLES RECOVERED||SACKS||SOLO TACKLES|
In spite of all the new faces, Gase’s vision goes beyond just personnel. In 2016, the Dolphins will be running a wide-nine defense, a scheme that spreads the defensive linemen so that DEs line up outside of the tight end slot. This is done to generate better angles for rushing the passer. Additionally, Miami hired Jim Washburn, one of the innovators of the wide-nine, to be the team’s senior defensive assistant and pass rush specialist. His main job will be to advise both Joseph and Terrell Williams on how to maximize the effectiveness of the scheme.
Still, the wide-nine should not be seen simply as a pass rush-style defense.
“We are not just trying to run up the field to rush the passer,” explained Mario Williams, to Anthony Chiang of the Palm Beach Post. “We are getting up the field being aggressive, but we want to make the plays. We want to make all the plays. We want to condition ourselves to be at the point where whenever we attack and go up the field, we can turn around and go get (the ball carrier). … It’s an attack, aggressive (style and) we have to get that mentality and go with it.”
The promise of the wide-nine, along with new faces in support of Wake, Williams and Suh, has Gase excited.
“We have some good depth. I’m excited to see how this thing plays out,” insisted the rookie head coach, according to the team’s official website. “If we’re healthy coming out of training camp, I think that front is going to be to be tough.”
The team’s newfound depth gives DL coach Williams another equally important reason for optimism, particularly in the south Florida heat.
“We know in this league most of the games are won in the fourth quarter,” Terrell Williams told Steven Wine of the Associated Press. “If we can score some points and get up on some people, we can roll them in in waves.”
The idea of wearing out opposing offensive linemen beneath the blistering Florida sun by rotating defenders could lead to reduced playing time for the team’s stars, and, naturally, bigger roles for the Dolphins’ lesser known ends and tackles. Still, that shouldn’t worry the fan base. After all, if there is one place in the world where a “No Name” defense could bring home a championship, Miami is it.
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