Money Talks: Why Letting Olivier Vernon Walk was the Right Move for Miami

Photo: USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins’ decision to let Olivier Vernon walk in free agency has been met with some inevitable criticism, as Vernon was perhaps the team’s most promising player not named Jarvis Landry. Vernon’s apparent replacement, 31-year-old Mario Williams, is coming off a down year in which he only totaled 5.5 sacks, and fans in Miami are understandably concerned as to how much the former Buffalo Bill has left in the tank. Do not be alarmed, Dolphins fans, as alleviating the fears and anxieties of your fan base is exactly what I’m paid 1850s sweatshop wages to do.  

The Decision:

Vernon2

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports)

The Miami Dolphins’ decision to let Olivier Vernon walk ultimately came down to money, as shocking as that concept is. His potential never really yielded the consistent in-game results that the organization desired. So, Miami was very reluctant to franchise tag the young defensive end, as he had never put together an entire season worth $15 million per year. The team ultimately decided to apply the far less expensive $12.7 million transition tag on Vernon, even waiting until the last possible moment to do so. In retrospect, this was likely done in order to buy the organization time to find a suitable replacement for the pass-rusher, as they had a scheduled interview with four-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams. Even though Williams did not leave Miami with a contract on his first visit, he ended up signing a two-year, $17 million contract with the team. Vernon’s relative lack of production (just 14 sacks in the last two years), coupled with Miami’s sparse cap space, made the decision to pull the $12.7 million transition tag easy after they landed their hand-picked replacement in Mario Williams. Olivier Vernon would go on to sign an absolutely ludicrous five-year, $85 million contract, $52.5 million guaranteed, with the New York Giants.

Why Olivier Vernon was Replaceable:

Vernon1

(Photo: Al Diaz – Miami Herald)

We have already discussed that the money simply was not available for Miami to keep Olivier Vernon at the market price he desired, and received, from the New York Giants. However, football teams generally do not hesitate to overpay for players that they believe to be potential franchise cornerstones. So, why would Miami decline to fork over millions of dollars when the New York Giants did just that? The simple answer is that Miami played the part of the realist while New York played the part of the optimist.

After the Giants handed Olivier Vernon his lucrative deal, he became the highest paid pass-rusher, and the second highest paid defensive player, in the league on a per year basis. His $17 million per year salary is only lower than that of Ndamukong Suh, and it has much more guaranteed money per year than perennial All-Pro J.J. Watt’s contract. So, the Giants are paying Vernon this staggering amount because they are optimistic that he can become an All-Pro talent and can transform their identity on defense. They could be right after all, as Vernon was one of the best pass rushers in the NFL over the 2nd half of last season. Though the stats may not show it, the man was the highest rated edge rusher from Week 8 on, per pro football focus. His sack numbers were rather unimpressive, but his ability to disrupt the quarterback’s timing and wrap up opposing running backs was exemplary during that 2nd half stretch. He performed ably in his first action as the team’s primary pass-rusher, and the Giants’ brass seems to view those 9-10 games as the beginning of a soon to be stellar career.

After years of egregiously overpaying for potential (i.e., Mike Wallace, Jordan Cameron, Dannell Ellerbe, etc.), the Dolphins exercised caution, declining to sink a dangerous amount of money into a man that has never put together a full season of excellent play. Olivier Vernon is being paid more than J.J. Watt, who signed his contract extension after a two-year stretch in which he earned two First Team All-Pro nominations, two Pro Bowl nominations, 31 sacks, and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Olivier Vernon, on the other hand, had a mere 14 sacks to go with zero awards over the last two years. Sure, the contracts come at different times, and Watt was never given the opportunity to test the market, but there is no logical reason for the Dolphins to sink so much cap space into such an unproven talent.

Vernon has spent the entirety of his career with one-on-one matchups, as Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh have received the majority of opposing teams’ attention. Offensive coordinators have built their game plans around neutralizing Wake, and for the most part, Vernon has failed to take full advantage of it. He has been frustratingly inconsistent, and has had just one short stretch of games where he was worth what the Giants are paying him. So, considering his inconsistent play, the Dolphins were very wise to ere on the side of caution this time around. Essentially, the team figured that they could sign a much more historically proven talent like Mario Williams for half the price, allowing the team to address some of the more glaring issues across the roster like the linebacker corps and the interior offensive line. Additionally, the front office knew that Vernon’s departure would yield a high draft pick for compensation, which recently was revealed to be a third-round compensatory pick.

 Why Mario Williams is the Ideal Replacement:

Willams

(Photo: Jerome Davis / Getty Images Sport)

The issue most Dolphins fans have with this situation is that they don’t believe that Mario Williams will be a sufficient replacement for the 25-year-old Olivier Vernon. Williams was a premiere talent at the 4-3 defensive end position as recently as 2014, and, as I’ve said all offseason, I think it likely that his mediocre 2015 was just a blip on an otherwise impressive radar. His pre-2015 three-year stretch with the Buffalo Bills included a First Team All-Pro nomination, two Pro-Bowl appearances, and three straight seasons with double-digit sacks.

While a dreadful 2015 by his standards is certainly a concern, the reasoning behind his disappearance is simple. Rex Ryan employed an aggressive 3-4 defense, in which Williams is a poor systemic fit. Williams was forced to move to 3-4 outside linebacker, and he failed to maintain the explosiveness that made him such a terror over the course of his decade long career. As he struggled to adjust, he complained about his role in Ryan’s system, battled with his coaches, and became a pariah in the locker room. By the end of the year, he was phoning in plays as his coaching staff did little to improve his ability to succeed. While his lack of leadership was undoubtedly disappointing, especially for a 31-year-old veteran, he has done nothing but dominate in a 4-3 system as a defensive end, which is the system that Vance Joseph and the Miami Dolphins’ coaching staff will employ in 2016. To view our more in depth scouting report on Mario Williams click here.

If anything, Williams’ lack of production in 2015 can be attributed to a lack of versatility and an overall bad attitude about that lack of versatility. I do not believe either of these negative attributes will significantly impact his 2016 season under Adam Gase. Mario Williams will perform in the defensive scheme that fits him best, where he will be rushing the passer exclusively as a defensive end. While he may not be the best leader in the NFL, Williams will not be a problem so long as the coaching staff puts him in position to succeed, which is what Adam Gase has done throughout his career as a coach. Rather than inciting unrest and performing for the media as Ryan does, Gase will do nothing to jeopardize the locker room. Perhaps even more significant, Gase prefers to build around his players, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It already looks like Williams, and other players on the roster, have bought into Gase’s ideology. All of these factors point to a potential comeback season for the four-time Pro Bowler.

 

The Skinny:

Photo: Gary Wiepert AP

(Photo: Gary Wiepert / AP)

Olivier Vernon has sky-high potential, but he has never proven that he can be The Guy for more than a few weeks at a time. His disappearing acts over the last few seasons, even with constantly favorable matchups, lead me to believe that he’ll be nothing more than an above average talent that makes a Pro Bowl here and there. Considering he wanted the Dolphins to pay him like an All-Pro, game-wrecking pass-rusher, I think they made the correct decision in letting him walk. Olivier Vernon’s long-term upside is obviously greater than that of his replacement, Mario Williams, but it’s highly likely that Williams performs just as well, if not better, than Vernon has over the past few seasons. Williams will be back in a comfortable system, with a head coach he actually chose to work under, and paired with Pro-Bowlers Cam Wake and Ndamukong Suh to lean on. Look at it this way, the Dolphins essentially traded Olivier Vernon for Mario Williams, an extra $4.5 million in cap space in 2016, and a 3rd round draft pick. So, they get a much more proven talent at the position, more to spend filling other holes on the roster, and a future draft pick to accrue new talent. As a cold-blooded, straight-up hustler, that looks like a pretty good deal to me.

 

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