2013 Miami Dolphins Position Review: Defensive End

The defense looks better when Cameron Wake does this to QBs. - Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

One elite player, 3 young guys with potential, perhaps not enough snaps to go around

We continue to take a look at our roster position-group by position-group to see how they've done so far this year. Previously, we discussed our defensive tackle rotation, which features 3 starting-caliber players who form arguably the best rotation in the league. Now, I present the Dolphins defensive end rotation, which features 1 unquestionably elite player plus 3 players trying to establish themselves in the NFL with varying draft pedigrees.

As usual, people with questions about the Pro Football Focus (PFF) Grading system should go to this page, where it is fully explained. Simply put, they have analysts watch every player on every play of each game and assign them a grade. Grades are standardized so a grade of 0 translates to average, with any positive grades meaning above average, and any negative grades meaning below average. Also, they don't give out "half-sacks," which is why their sack totals sometime differ from NFL.com's and ESPN.com's stats - if you bring down the QB, they award you a full sack rather than try to split credit.

Cameron Wake

Traditional Stats: 15 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 walk-off safety in overtime

Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 38.6 snaps/game; 51.4% (309 of 601 snaps in games he didn't miss)

PFF Ranking: #4 out of 49 defensive ends who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps

PFF Grades Summary:

Cameron_wake_rating_medium

Contract Status: Free Agent in 2017

Background - ESPN's Grantland website had a terrific article going over Wake's background, which you can read here. To be brief - Wake went undrafted out of Penn State. After several years working as a mortgage broker and personal trainer, he tried out for the Canadian Football League, where he quickly became a star defensive end. He signed up with the Miami Dolphins in 2009. Throughout his tenure with the Dolphins, Wake has been an incredibly disruptive pass-rusher who has become elite against the run. 2012 was his best season yet, as he was rated the best pass rushing 4-3 defensive end in the NFL by PFF, and incredibly, one of the 5 best defensive ends at stopping the run as well, making him a truly complete player.

2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Wake didn't do well in his matchup against the Colts' right tackle Gosder Cherilus (the highest paid right tackle in the NFL), and he also struggled against the Falcons, which was the game in which he suffered a knee sprain that has limited him for most of the season. Otherwise, Wake has been consistently good, though his snaps have been limited since his injury. He normally gets at least 70% of a game's snaps, but he's averaging around 50% this season, which limits his impact. His run defense has taken a step back this year, as he's ranked as only the 27th best defensive end against the run (above average but not elite). However, his poor performances against the run have come after his knee injury, which is the likely explanation for why he hasn't been as effective setting the edge. While Wake has played fewer snaps this year due to his injury, he's been so effective in those limited snaps that Wake is still ranked as the 3rd best 4-3 DE at rushing the passer this year, with 18 QB hurries, 5 QB hits, and 1 QB sacks (24 QB "disruptions").

Oliver Vernon

Traditional Stats: 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 1 starting position won

PFF Ranking: #37 out of 49 defensive ends who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps

Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 59.1 snaps/game; 79.2% (532 out of 672 - hasn't missed a game)

PFF Grades Summary:

Olivier_vernon_rating_medium

Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent in 2016

Background - Olivier Vernon is a former Miami Hurricane and 3rd round 2012 draft pick of the Miami Dolphins who was a situational pass rusher and special-teamer as a rookie. He showed versatility in coverage and was good against the run in limited snaps, but he struggled rushing the passer. The lack of production as a pass rusher in part led to the drafting of Dion Jordan in 2013, but Vernon was a standout performer in this year's training camp and won the starting job due to earning the coaches' trust in defending the run.

2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Vernon had a very rough start to his 2013 season against an elite left tackle in Cleveland's Joe Thomas and a good left tackle in Indianapolis' Anthony Castonzo. However, Vernon rebounded from that tough start and played at a slightly above average level for several weeks before struggling against the Buccaneers. Jared Odrick actually spent some snaps lined up at right defensive end (instead of Vernon) due to concerns about how effectively the Buccaneers were running the ball. Vernon is ranked as the 31st best defensive end against the run AND as the 30th best defensive end at rushing the passer this year (so roughly average if you cut him some slack for his slow start), with 21 QB hurries, 3 QB hits, and 5 QB sacks (29 total QB disruptions).

Derrick Shelby

Traditional Stats: 25 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, Official "Acorn"-status

PFF Ranking: #24 out of 49 defensive ends who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps

Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 34.7 snaps per game; (46.4%, 312 of 672 - missed no games)

PFF Grades Summary:

Derrick_shelby_rating_medium

Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent in 2015

Background - Shelby was an undrafted free agent signed by the Dolphins in 2012 after playing at Utah. As a rookie, he averaged 13.8 snaps per game as Cameron Wake's primary backup. Coaches praise his technique-sound play, especially when it comes to the run. The ideal backup for Wake should be cheap (since he'll be getting limited snaps) and should be able to "hold the fort" whenever Wake gets a breather on the bench, which usually occurs on running downs. Shelby fills that limited role perfectly and is a nice find by our front office.

2013 Season summary - As shown in the PFF grading, Shelby this year has been inconsistent. What you won't see in the chart is that he's ranked as the 11th best defensive end in the NFL against the run, justifying the Dolphins' coaches faith in him on running downs. However, Shelby is only #34th out of 49 in terms of rushing the passer, with 4 QB hurries, 2 QB hits, and 3 QB sacks, for a total of only 9 QB disruptions this year in 9 games. Those very poor pass rushing performances are what hurt his grades, yet he's been given those increased snaps due to Wake being limited by injury and our coaching staff very clearly not trusting Dion Jordan with heavy snaps yet. Speaking of which...

Dion Jordan

Traditional Stats: 11 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 3 QB pressures leading to interceptions (watch all 3 of them here and here and here)

PFF Ranking: #21 out of 49 defensive ends who play at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps (2nd highest out of the 4 Dolphins defensive ends)

Snaps per game/Percentage of snaps: 19.8 snaps per game; (26.5%, 178 of 672 - missed no games)

PFF Grades Summary:

Dion_jordan_rating_medium

Contract Status: Free Agent in 2018

Background - Dion Jordan was drafted by the Miami Dolphins #3 overall in 2013 after playing 3-4 OLB at Oregon. At Oregon, he showed tremendous versatility in dropping coverage as well as rushing the passer, but he was poor against the run. After the draft, he missed much of the offseason due a prolonged rehab from offseason shoulder surgery. He was cleared to practice after the first week of training camp, but then suffered a setback and was limited until being medically cleared before the start of the regular season. Jordan's role was believed to be a pass-rushing specialist and special teamer this year, similar to Olivier Vernon's rookie season.

2013 Season summary - Some of you might be wondering why I listed Dion Jordan last. Well, he's gotten almost half as many snaps as Derrick Shelby. It's tough to evaluate Dion Jordan because he's receiving so few snaps. Dion Jordan gets fewer than 20 snaps per game on defense, while Olivier Vernon in a similar role last year averaged nearly 30 snaps per game.

In those limited snaps, he has been inconsistent against the run, though he's still ranked as the 27th best defensive end in the NFL against the run (which is below average but far from awful). However, Jordan is 16th in the NFL when it comes to rushing the passer this year, with 12 QB hurries, 3 QB hits, and 1 QB sack (16 QB disruptions). Those totals may seem low, but that's partly due to how few snaps he's on the field.


Player QB Disruptions Pass Rushing Snaps Snaps per QB Disruptions
Cameron Wake (2012) 86 558 6.5
Cameron Wake (2013) 24 186 7.8
Olivier Vernon 29 297 10.2
Derrick Shelby 9 136 15.1
Dion Jordan 16 117 7.3

Take home points:

1. While Cameron Wake is going to finish with fewer sacks this year than last year, it's mostly explained by him playing fewer snaps due to injury. He's almost as effective disrupting the QB this year (once every 7.8 snaps) as he was last year (once every 6.5 snaps).

2. While Olivier Vernon has the most QB disruptions of the 4 defensive ends, he also has had far more opportunities to rush the passer due to his good health and the coaches putting him on the field more. On a per-snap basis, he's been only the 3rd most effective defensive end on the team rushing the passer (out of 4).

3. Derrick Shelby should ideally only be on the field on running downs. He requires twice as many opportunities to reach the QB (15.1) as Dion Jordan (7.3). However, because the coaches play him on early downs against the run, if an opposing offense decides to go "hurry-up" to prevent substitutions, he's then stuck on the field on passing plays.

4. Dion Jordan, on a per snap basis, has been better than Cameron Wake this year and almost as good as Cameron Wake last year when it comes to rushing the passer. There's no guarantee he'd remain as effective on a per-snap basis if his role was increased, but given his limited opportunities, Jordan has no chance to produce impressive numbers. So if Jordan finishes this year with a subpar sack total, I would argue that it's not because he's a bad pass rusher since he's been Wake-like in very limited snaps rushing the passer. Instead, it's because the coaches don't trust him against the run, which limits his snaps on both running and passing downs since teams do pass sometimes on first and second downs.

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