Dolphins Wildcards: What Should Miami Expect from Cameron Wake in 2016?

Cameron Wake is arguably the best football player to wear a Dolphins uniform over the last decade and most certainly over the last five years. In a rare showing of loyalty, the team opted to extend Wake’s contract an extra year, which now includes $10 million guaranteed. While many fans were excited about locking in the franchise pass rusher for another season, others questioned whether it was a savvy football move for the team going forward. The 34-year-old Pro Bowler seemed to be slowing down even before he tore his Achilles halfway through the season. Fan concern has only been exacerbated since the team has no real semblance of depth after watching both Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby walk during free agency. With 30-year-old Mario Williams as the only other reliable pass-rusher on the roster, it is vital that Cameron Wake performs if the defense is to succeed. But how reasonable is it to expect Wake to do just that?

Background and Stats:

Wake Sacks Brady

(Photo: Brad Barr/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s safe to assume that as a Dolphins’ fan, you are well aware of Cameron Wake’s incredible contributions to the franchise. So, in an effort to reduce redundancies, I’ll try to remain as concise as possible. Since he left the CFL to join the Dolphins in 2009, Wake has averaged 10 sacks per season for a grand total of 70. He has made the Pro Bowl in four of his seven seasons, and he was even named a 1st team All-Pro in 2012. After enjoying an 11.5 sack season in 2014, many thought Wake would continue to dominate in 2015, especially with newcomer Ndamukong Suh anchoring the defensive line.

Unfortunately, as you know, 2015 did not go as planned for the Miami Dolphins. Joe Philbin, humanity’s equivalent of oatmeal, was fired after a miserable 1-3 start. During that span, Cameron Wake recorded just a single tackle and no sacks. After the Week 5 bye in which defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was axed and Joe Philbin was replaced by tight ends coach Dan “Old Ironsides” Campbell, Cameron Wake finally seemed to be his old self again. In Week 6, he took Marcus Mariota’s lunch money to the tune of 4 sacks. In Week 7, he tacked on another two sacks on a reeling Texans team. However, all of that momentum came to a screeching halt during the Miami Dolphins’ Week 8 Thursday night contest against the New England Patriots. Wake tore his Achilles tendon while going after everyone’s favorite model, Tom Brady. It didn’t take long for media analysts and talking heads to speculate as to whether or not Wake could come back from such a devastating injury at the ripe age of 34.

Strengths:

Cameron Wake is one of the best pure pass-rushers that I have had the privilege of watching. The first thing I notice when watching him on tape is his explosiveness. Though age has sapped some of his athleticism, most of the offensive lineman who oppose him probably haven’t noticed. His speed and agility are exceptional and his body control allows him to change direction on a dime. Take this play, the last of his 4 sacks against the Tennessee Titans last year, as a good example:

Wake Sack Ten 4

During the play, Wake blazes past two players. The first, tight end Delanie Walker, fails miserably in slowing down Wake and quickly disengages as a pass-option in the flat. Wake, now on an island against the right tackle, proceeds to put the opposing lineman on skates, effortlessly running past him and into the backfield. Now, with nobody between him and the quarterback, Wake quickly shifts direction and dives for the sack. Too easy.

While Cameron Wake’s explosiveness is the easiest of his positive aspects to recognize, it is his mental mastery of the game that has been the most valuable to him. His technique in rushing the quarterback and his advanced football IQ give him a leg up over the competition. This has been his key to being productive well into his thirties and remains his greatest asset for continuing to do so. Take this play, which turned out to be his final sack of the season, for example:

Wake Sack Brady

What you’ll probably notice immediately is that Wake is off the line of scrimmage before anybody else. Initially, I thought he may have gone offsides, but upon closer inspection, I realized that was not the case. Cameron Wake reads right tackle Cameron Fleming’s movements, as Fleming jumped the gun by a split second in pass-protection. Wake outmaneuvers the slow-footed offensive lineman, prompting Tom Brady to try to escape out of the pocket. Wake has no trouble changing direction and tracks down the future Hall of Fame quarterback without issue.

Of all of Wake’s attributes that have made him a dominant pass-rusher on the field, there is one off the field that could be key going forward. His reputation of working hard and never giving up speaks for itself, but there is one play on the field that showcased it best:

Wake injured

Here you can see the moment that Wake tears his Achilles. Many players would simply succumb to the pain and go to the ground, which is an absolutely natural reaction. Cam Wake doesn’t do that here. Instead, he hops on one leg in an attempt to get to Tom Brady. If that isn’t a superhuman display of toughness and fortitude, then I don’t know what is.

Weaknesses:

Wake is an aging pass-rushing specialist, so it’s understandable that the team would take him out of the game during running situations. He has never been a great run defender to begin with, as his lack of size makes it impossible for him to be a stalwart against the run. He also has a tendency to over-pursue the quarterback (as most pass-rushers do), leading to occasionally poor angles when tracking the running back. Take this play against the Redskins for example:

Wake bad angle

When Cameron Wake realizes it’s a running play, he adjusts his positioning and accidentally runs into Ndamukong Suh and a fallen Redskins lineman. By the time he starts tracking Alfred Morris, the play is just about over.

Another weak point in Wake’s game is a relatively recent development. As he has gotten older, his agility has predictably declined. His struggle with minor hamstring injuries has compounded the problem. Last season Wake struggled in space, and he was often rendered unable to tackle running backs and mobile quarterbacks. In fact you could even call him a liability when the quarterback left the pocket, which is evidenced by his mere 9 tackles last season. Take this play against the Bills for example:

Wake ankle breaks

The play is a play action fake. Tyrod Taylor fakes the handoff to Shady McCoy left and rolls out to the right. Even though Wake recognizes the play action fairly quickly, his body does not cooperate with his mind. Tyrod Taylor breaks Wake’s ankles, allowing him to complete a deep pass to Charles Clay for a chunk of yardage and a first down.

At this point in his career, Cameron Wake is somewhat one-dimensional. He excels as a pass-rusher, but tends to be mediocre in a lot of other situations. But, even rotational rushers can make a huge impact on a defense. The biggest question regarding Wake is if he can manage to stay on the field. Torn Achilles muscles are among the most difficult injuries to come back from, especially for veteran players. It’s fair to wonder as to whether or not the 34-year-old will even see the field this season after such a devastating injury, and his history of minor ailments makes matters murkier.

The Skinny:

102515  spt tx fins 22

(Photo: Bill Ingram/The Palm Beach Post)

Optimistically, I don’t see Cameron Wake’s recovery as an “if” so much as a “when.” However, in my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect him to be the dominant force that he has been in years past. At this point in his career, when he’s healthy, Cameron Wake’s best fit is as a situational pass-rusher. The new role would limit his snap count, thus reducing his probability of injury and allowing the team to get the most bang for their buck. Unfortunately, this role reduction may not be in the cards.

As it stands now, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams are the only proven options at the defensive end position. Considering the lack of defensive line depth, the Dolphins may not have the luxury of limiting Wake’s snap count, especially if Dion Jordan does not rejoin the team from his yearlong suspension. Whatever the case may be, I think the Miami Dolphins would do well to follow the plan of action that the Indianapolis Colts took with Robert Mathis last season.

Like Wake, Mathis was a 34-year-old perennial Pro Bowler as a pass-rusher coming off a torn Achilles. The Colts held him out of the preseason and Week 1. When they were given the green light, they let Mathis play in Week 2 and gradually increased his snaps over the course of the season until he took back his starting job midway through the season. Mathis was able to avoid injury and lead the team with 7 sacks. Wake can do that and more if Adam Gase’s coaching staff utilizes him appropriately. As I’ve said, it is not reasonable to expect the Cameron Wake of 2014, but the Cameron Wake of 2016 could still be a force to be reckoned with.

 

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