Part 1: Interview with Ian Wharton of Bleacher Report by Justis Mosqueda
Ian Wharton is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. He does great NFL Draft work and used to cover the Miami Dolphins for the site. When I was trying to think of Dolphins-centric writers, Ian’s name was the first to pop into my head. He recently wrote on the pass-rusher Olivier Vernon for B/R. Start your journey in this piece by reading his; It’s very worth your time.
JM: What do you think the chances are that Olivier Vernon plays for the Miami Dolphins in 2016?
IW: Very low. The transition tag seemed to be either a hedge against Miami striking out on another aggressive approach in free agency, or a favor to David Canter, Vernon’s agent. If they really wanted to retain Vernon, I think the exclusive tag would have been given.
JM: The hit rate for pass-rushers in the third round isn’t high. Though we don’t talk about it, there are as many busts at the EDGE position as at quarterback after the first round. Why do you think Vernon was “the one” who was able to develop?
IW: Two names: Kacy Rodgers and Cam Wake. Rodgers is one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL, and now he’s doing work with the Jets as the defensive coordinator. Vernon’s consistency with hand placement and leverage have noticeably improved. I believe that comes from coaching from the staff and other great players helping.
JM: Vernon didn’t have great jumps or agility drills at the combine, which kept him from passing the Force Players filter. Typically, younger players tend to test worse than more veteran players, and Vernon is only a 25-year-old after four seasons in the NFL. With that being said, he had 11.5 sacks in his sophomore year. Did he ever appear to drastically change in terms of athleticism while with the Dolphins?
IW: I don’t think so. He doesn’t win with speed consistently, nor does he show bend through contact too often. It’s hit or miss still. I think he plays to his tests quite well.
JM: There are some concerns that his sack numbers have been inflated by those he’s been fortunate enough to play with on Miami’s defensive line. Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and Jared Odrick are among that group. How much is Vernon a product of his environment?
IW: I’d speculate that a majority of his production comes from cleaning up what others create. He disappeared for large portions of games and rarely, if ever, took over as the alpha pass-rusher. He needs to be in a similar situation to succeed.
JM: Heading into free agency, what is ideal role for a defense?
IW: I think most of his success came in nickel packages when he slide inside to 3-tech in 2013. In base packages, weak-side end in a 4-3 under or maybe LEO role will help create enough space for him to work.
Part 2: Olivier Vernon Pressure Production by Anthony Chiado
As I said, I’ve started to use a new charting system for Pressure Production that should provide a better picture of each player. One of the biggest changes with this new system is keeping track of alignment data more in depth than simply whether the rusher lined up on the edge or interior.
The Dolphins heavily used Vernon on the right side of their defensive line (facing the left side of the offensive line). He spent 94.6% of his snaps there, as opposed to 2.7% each on the left side and interior. He is clearly much more comfortable on the left side of the line and his experience there gives him a natural feel that he doesn’t show on the right side. It should be obvious from his body type, but Vernon also isn’t the type of player who is going to be shifted to the interior very often. He is strictly an edge pass rusher. I think his talent level as a pass rusher would allow him to adapt better than most if the team who signs him wants to use him in a more versatile way, but keeping him in the familiar environment of the left side will maximize his return.
Here is the area where the change in the charting system makes the biggest difference. I had previously only been tracking “pressures” and “losses”, but that is a far too simplistic way to view pass rushes. So, I made the change to keeping track of pressures, wins, and losses (credit to Arif Hasan for giving me this idea). This makes it easier to correctly categorize the result of the play, rather than trying to fit it into a category that doesn’t necessarily fit.
From charting with the other system I had a pretty good understanding of what good and bad results were. To help understand this new system better I charted some players with the new and the old, including Vernon. What I figured out was that the numbers that we see with Vernon usually translate to good numbers in the old system. We also see that Vernon is a better pass rusher on the edge than the interior, even though 4 snaps on the interior doesn’t really give us a big enough sample size to make any real conclusions.
Looking at just attempts on the edge, Vernon created pressure 18.6% of the time, which equates to 18.1% of his total attempts. That means that on nearly 1 out of every 5 times he rushed, he strongly negatively influenced the play for the offense. On another 32.9% of his attempts he registered a “win”. That essentially means he was able to beat his man, but didn’t really negatively impact the play for the offense. For example, he may have been able to get the edge on the offensive tackle and force the quarterback to step up in the pocket but he was still able to finish making his reads and deliver a throw on target. He lost on the other 49% of his pass rushes, which essentially means that he’s benefiting the defense on half of the plays where he rushes the passer. That may not seem great just thinking about it, but you have to contextualize the numbers. A quarterback completing only 50% pass attempts is really bad, a wide receiver only getting open on half of the routes he runs isn’t good, but a pass rusher “winning” on half of your attempts is quite good. The nature of the position makes it more difficult to succeed and the impact that pass rushers have when they pressure the quarterback is bigger than a single completed pass or successful route.
His Sack Conversion Rate of 25.9% isn’t great, but it also isn’t terrible, especially considering that his ability to bring the quarterback to the ground improved later in the season as he got over a nagging leg injury. Vernon showed that he can be a double digit sack player in 2013, when he racked up 11.5, and I think it’s reasonable to think he can hover between 10 and 15 for at least his next contract.
The ways that Vernon beat blockers illustrate very well the type of player he is. His most impactful move was a bull rush, which he used on nearly one third of the plays where he won. At the combine Vernon did very well in the jumping tests. That lower body explosion is where his ability to translate to speed to power comes from. He is also able to mix in other moves so blockers aren’t able to key in on his bull rush on every play. He isn’t the most flexible EDGE rusher in the world, but 21.1% of his wins came from bending-the-edge due to his ability to counter offensive tackles oversetting in order to stop his bull rush.
Vernon also has the technical aspect of pass rushing down. His hands aren’t the most violent, but he uses them extremely efficiently to combat blockers. Vernon employs a very effective rip move, a spin move that allowed him to create pressure on nearly 100% of the attempts where he used it, and a swim move that allows him to take pass rushes to the interior of the blocker very smoothly. On top of that, only 7.8% of his wins came due to coverage or being left unblocked.
With Vernon you aren’t getting the most athletic pass rusher. He’s probably never going to break the 15 sack barrier and he’s more of a second tier EDGE rusher than a top tier one. That being said, he is very capable of being a team’s number one rusher and I think you can rely on him to give you just over 10 sacks each season. That is something that the vast majority of teams in the league need and should be aggressively looking for. Just one month ago in the Super Bowl we saw how important pass rushers are for stopping a potent offense. Vernon obviously isn’t on the level of Miller or Ware, but his contract will reflect the importance of having good players on the edge.
Part 3: Olivier Vernon’s Career Sacks by Justis Mosqueda
2015 Season: 7.5 credited sacks
16 Games/16 Starts
Tennessee [RE, T-E stunt]
New England 1.1 [standing RE, edge]
Dallas [RE, edge]
New York Jets 2.1 [standing RE, inside]
Baltimore 1.1 [standing RE, chase]
Baltimore 1.2 (.5) [standing RE, edge]
Baltimore 1.3 [standing RE, OL]
San Diego (.5) [standing RE, cleanup]
New England 2.1 (.5) [standing RE, edge]
2014 Season: 6.5 credited sacks
16 Games/16 Starts
New England 1.1 [standing RE, inside]
Kansas City [standing RE, cleanup]
Green Bay 1.1 [RE, edge]
Green Bay 1.2 (.5) [RE, chase]
San Diego [RE, outside]
Buffalo 2.1 [RE, inside]
Baltimore [RE, inside]
2013 Season: 11.5 credited sacks
16 Games/14 Starts
Indianapolis (.5) [standing RE, cleanup]
New Orleans [RE, outside]
Baltimore [RE, chase]
Buffalo 1.1 [RE, inside]
New England 1.1 [RE, inside]
San Diego [RE, inside]
Carolina 1.1 [RE, chase]
Carolina 1.2 [RE, chase]
New York Jets 1.1 [RE, edge]
New York Jets 1.2 [standing DT, stunt]
New York Jets 1.3 [standing DT, inside]
Pittsburgh [standing DT, stunt]
2012 Season: 3.5 credited sacks
16 Games/0 Starts
New York Jets 1.1 (.5) [RE, cleanup]
St. Louis 1.1 [DT, OL]
St. Louis 1.2 [standing RE, inside]
Buffalo 2.1 [standing RE, cleanup]