Why 2015 was Ndamukong Suh’s best season yet

Suh's production may not be to the level of his mega-deal, but that's a high bar; Sam Monson says he was still among the league's best.

| 6 months ago
(AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

(AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

Why 2015 was Ndamukong Suh’s best season yet

On first glance at some of the reactions to Ndamukong Suh’s first year as a Miami Dolphin, you would think he had one of the worst seasons of his career, rather than the best.

Often a player’s narrative is dictated by factors other than his on-field performance, and that is exactly the case for Suh, who signed a blockbuster, market-jumping contract a year ago during free agency before taking his talents to South Beach.

There are really two things worth evaluating here: Suh’s level of play in abstract terms, and his production in the context of the contract he signed. He may never be able to justify the value of the deal Miami threw his way, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t playing very well.

Suh earned a place on the PFF Top 101 at No. 27 overall, just two spots lower than a year ago, despite the narrative that he had the worst performance of his career in his first season as a Dolphin.

In each of his six seasons in the NFL, Suh has earned a positive pass-rushing grade. He has always been able to penetrate and get after the passer, but for the first couple of seasons, that came at the expense of playing the run. He would shoot gaps and take himself completely out of the play, leading to negative grades in run defense in each of his first three seasons. At times it seemed like all you needed to run against Detroit was a trap-block, and you would render Suh inert against the rushing attack. Since then, however, he has steadily improved that aspect of his game and bettered his grade from the previous season in each of his last three campaigns.

In 2015, he ranked No. 16 among all interior players against the run, to go along with his No.3 ranking as a pass-rusher, trailing only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.

Suh accumulated 60 total pressures and five batted passes as a pass-rusher while also playing the most snaps of his career, surpassing 1,000 for the first time. It isn’t the highest number of pressures he has generated over a season, but the grade for those pressures was higher than in the past because there was a greater percentage of them coming against legitimate blocks, as opposed to clean-up plays made by other players and finished by Suh.

This season he was actively affecting the opposing quarterback more than he has at any point in the past, and did it while continuing his improvement against the run. The only real negative to his season was a ridiculous 18 penalties, double the next-highest figure among interior defenders. Most of Suh’s penalties were just a careless lack of discipline.

Suh has always had an ill-disciplined streak to his game, but we tend to imagine that manifesting itself in violent acts like stomping on opponents or trying to kick them in the gentleman’s region. In 2015, though, it was simply refusing to keep himself from jumping offside; 15 of his 18 penalties were either offsides (three times), encroachments (five), or neutral-zone infractions (seven), which all amount to the same thing, and signals a willful refusal to adjust his play over the season.

Even if we say that these penalties are all a manifestation of selling out to jump the snap in order to get in the backfield sooner, and apply that negative to his pass-rush or overall grades, he still ends up with the best season of his career from a grading standpoint.

That brings us to the context of his contract. Suh can play the best football of his career for the rest of this deal and may still never come close to justifying the price tag. He averages almost $2 million a year more than the next-highest-paid defensive lineman, Malik Jackson, who signed his deal a year later and should have inflation and an ever-rising cap on his side. Watt, who signed a new deal just before the 2014 season, averages nearly $2.5 million per season less than Suh, has less total money in the contract, and a lower percentage of guaranteed dollars.

Watt is a generationally-great player—one of the best to ever play the game—with a legitimate shot to take the mantle of the single-best D-lineman ever to step on an NFL field when all is said and done. If any player deserves to be the best-paid at the position, it’s him.

The fact that Suh’s contract shines over Watt’s by so much means he will naturally be seen as providing poor value for money. Increase the compensation a player receives, and expectations of that player rise accordingly, naturally. If a quarterback doubles his production while his salary increases fivefold, the return on investment is down even if the quarterback himself has become a better player.

Miami did its best to try and maximize Suh’s impact, and his first season there saw him move around the defensive line far more than in the past. He lined up in his customary 3-tech spot on the left side of the line on 708 of his 1,020 snaps (69.4 percent), but he also saw 63 snaps on the edge (6.2 percent) and 198 snaps as an end inside the tackle (18.5 percent), with the remaining snaps being other defensive tackle spots (the right side or nose tackle).

In essence, Suh the football player is doing nearly everything he can to be the best player he can be. He has improved his run defense, is rushing the passer as well as he ever has before, and is doing so from more positions along the defensive front in roles never before asked of him. If he could improve his discipline and avoid jumping offside so often, he would be pretty close to maximizing his sizable potential. The issue is that, even at that high level, Suh just won’t be worth the contract the Miami Dolphins signed him to, at least for a couple of years until the salary cap and market moves upward enough that it isn’t the outlier that it currently is.

Strictly from a value perspective, Ndamukong Suh might never provide a full return on the contract the Dolphins gave him. But absent that, it would be unfair to use that to suggest he has not provided great play to the team. In 2015, Suh was one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, producing his best single-season body of work as a pro.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Mark Zuraf

    The “journalists” down here in SFLA should read this, better still one of them should have wrote this. The talk down here is that Suh did play well last year, just not up to his level of play in prior years. Thanks Sam for debunking this myth.

  • Joe Doe

    Articles like these do such a service to lead misled commentators, journalists and fans to better understand a player’s production. In Green Bay, Mike Daniels, is the only player on the line worth double-teaming and his impact based on traditional stats is minimal, while he is likely the best player on the defense. That being said, I was the only fan I know touting him so highly, and at my lone Lambeau appearance this season, I didn’t see one Daniels jersey among a sea of Matthews, Rodgers, Nelsons and (overpaid) Cobbs.

  • jack_sprat2

    “The fact that Suh’s contract shines over Watt’s by so much means he will naturally be seen as providing poor value for money.”

    Revealingly, this sort of comparison is seldom, if ever, used to excoriate those NFL signal callers who are not TB12. By the standards implied by the Suh:Watt comparison, every other NFL QB should hang their heads in shame and call it quits.

    • eYeDEF

      Poor projection on your part. Brady’s year to year performance does not distinguish him from the pack of other elite quarterbacks anywhere like Watt’s absolute dominance of his position since he’s been in the league. It took a down season from Watt and another generational talent like Donald for Watt to finish a season 2nd best. Sorry but your hero worship notwithstanding, Brady typically performs as a top 5 quarterback and he doesn’t float so far above the pack to be in a class by himself like Watt. Rodgers or Manning could outperform Brady in any given season, and its their salaries that have set the market at the position while Brady has chosen to take a discount at his own expense.

      • jack_sprat2

        QBs aren’t paid for year-to-year STATISTICS, they’re paid for year-to-year WINS. On that score, the other signal callers damn well SHOULD hang their heads in shame, by comparison.

        • eYeDEF

          Hardly. You don’t seem to be aware that wins and losses are a team stat.

  • LostAlone

    I agree that Suh played great last year, the problem is simply that he’s playing in the same league as Donald and Watt, and to some extent that he’s playing for the struggling Fins. We see Watt single handedly elevate the Texans and ask why Suh isn’t doing the same if he’s so good. Compared to the big two Suh looks pedestrian. He looks like he’s just an interior rusher not a star player.

  • Mehl81

    This is why more often than not, the eye test is better than stats.

    • jack_sprat2

      There’s a reason why the reaction to Suh’s senior season at Nebraska, among his future NFL brethren, was almost uniquely one of unqualified respect, if not awe. Would anyone care to imagine the damage that Suh could inflict with Carolina’s LBs maintaining gap integrity?

      Unleash the hounds! Let loose the dogs of war!

  • LightsOut85

    “saw him move around the defensive line far more than in the past”

    In the articles PFF did last year highlighting where DL lined up, it said Suh was between the Gs 40% of the time, between G & T 50%, & outside T 10%. Since this season he played over** 69.4% at 3-tech (btwn G&T), I think you could say he was moved more (or at least, as much) last season.

    **Over, since 69.4 was just LEFT 3T.

  • Brit

    It’s amazing how many people think Suh is a bust….probably the same people who think Obama is a good POTUS.

    • jack_sprat2

      More amusing, than amazing. Stupidity, in some contexts, is a terrible thing, but this is nothing more important than entertainment. (Keep in mind that I’m a fan of BOTH the Lions and Suh.)

      Even more amusing, to me, is this still repeated falsehood that Suh tried to kick Schaub’s “genital region”. His so-called effort was even less effectual than Shaquille O’Neal’s sad attempts to box Charles Barkley and Brad Miller. C’mon, Suh’s NOT that lame. Had he intended to hurt Schaub, he would’ve hurt him. Period. What he actually succeeded in doing was to make a fool of himself, just as he did when he stepped on A-Rod’s calf. It was petulance, not rage, that directed his actions; as with most actions of three-year-old’s, neither “attack” could’ve hurt a flea.

  • Stu Dent

    I live in Reno Nevada and the Dolphins are my team just because of players like Suh. The owner (Stephen M. Ross) has given his approval that money is no object when it comes to entertainment and that is exactly what Suh is. He has built an exciting moment in what would otherwise be a dual time in this part of the NFL season. God Bless Him and His Family Amen…. Go Phins!!!!

  • Kavika Star- Dolfan

    So many fans watching the NFL only grade him by his sack numbers, which is ridiculous.

    The fact that so many Dolfans think we should cut him asap are ignorant to the above mentioned FACTS in this article.

    Championships are typically won by having great(Top 5) Defense and a Top 5 Running game and a good (could even be just decent) QB. (See Trent Dilfer, That guy from Tampa Bay and a few other No-names I can’t recall).

    Suh is an asset to the Dolphins even at this price! If that’s what it takes to get over the hump and back into contention for playoffs, then sometimes glory comes at a high price!

    Just PHIN BABY!

  • jack_sprat2

    One thing left unstated in this article–no doubt because it was beyond its brief–is that it isn’t so much that Suh is overpaid, as it is the fact that the previous administration of the Detroit Lions mishandled their salary cap so bad that the team was unwilling to pull the trigger early on a contract extension, as was done with Watt and others. (True, the delay in setting a rookie wage scale also contributed.)

    Watt didn’t get market value, having been offered sufficient money early that he was unwilling to risk his future financial security to injury. Suh, on the other hand, is a very proud man, who wasn’t persuaded to trade security for opportunity. More power to him.

    It’s instructive that so few teams were prepared to actively bid for Suh’s services as a free agent. Detroit and Miami, for whatever reasons, just had to have that rare elite defender. After all, how often is anyone dumb enough to let one get onto the market?