Is Olivier Vernon's elite contract year worth a long-term deal?
The second the Miami Dolphins inked Ndamukong Suh to his monster free agency contract, they were going to be forced into making tough decisions about the rest of the roster for the duration of that deal. This offseason, the first of those tough decisions is what they do with pass rushers Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, who have likely become an either/or proposition.
Wake is coming off a torn Achilles injury, and is scheduled to make $8.4 million this season, while Vernon is about to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent coming off his best season—unless the Dolphins slap him with the franchise tag or get him locked down to a long-term contract. With Suh eating up $28.6 million in cap space, there is likely no way they can get anything done with Vernon without re-working Wake’s deal, or cutting him outright for the cap saving.
The franchise tag cost for Vernon would be $15.7m, meaning the Dolphins would have $54.1 million (almost 35 percent) in cap space tied up in three defensive linemen.
Logically, Miami would be looking to get younger at the position and choose Vernon over Wake, but there are risks attached to that given Vernon’s career arc. Vernon’s PFF grade has improved in each of the past three seasons (as his pass-rush grade), but the jump from 2014 to 2015 was colossal in a contract year. What is even more of a reason for pause is that the majority of his grade came in the final eight games of the season, where he was virtually unstoppable as the team’s primary pass-rush threat with Wake injured.
From one perspective, this is a good thing—a guy who found a new level when he was suddenly the primary source of pass-rush for the team—but from another, you are talking about handing over a huge contract to a guy who only really has eight games of elite play to his name.
Over the first eight games of the 2015 season, Vernon’s cumulative PFF grade was +1.3, and he had two sacks and 24 total pressures to his name. Over the final eight games of the season that grade was +53.6 and he had eight sacks and 57 total pressures.
His grade for the final eight games of the season alone would have ranked second-best among all edge rushers over the season, trailing only Oakland’s Khalil Mack.
We undoubtedly saw an incredible peak to Vernon’s play this past season. At his best, he was—and is—a devastating pass rusher who plays the run extremely well. He showed play that can rival any edge defender in football, but did so over just eight games.
Looking back at his 2014 grades, we see a player who flashed that kind of ability, but had bad games in there as well. He had six games in 2014 that would rival his 2015 season, but also three poor performances and far more non-descript outings where he was a non-factor.
The Dolphins must be leery about the prospect of handing a big contract to Vernon, and maybe the franchise tag would be the best option for them in normal circumstances—signing him to a one-year contract they can use to see if this season was a fluke or his new baseline—but their problem is how squeezed for cap space they already are, and that a long-term contract is almost certainly better for their immediate cap situation.
Miami should elect to apply the tag to Vernon, but the question will be if they are practically able to without making moves like cutting Wake to make it happen.