The Miami Dolphins have been disciplined and methodical in their approach to free agency thus far in 2016. They have added a few players but have also lost a few key players, such as Lamar Miller and Olivier Vernon. While some can argue whether or not they should have kept one or both, the fact is they are gone. Did the Dolphins make the right decision, though? More specifically, were they right in letting Vernon walk or will they regret letting a 25-year-old pass rusher leave via free agency as he is set to enter the prime of his career?
Let's begin by looking back to when the Dolphins placed the transition tag on Vernon. Many questioned it at that time, but none of us knew what the real intention was. It is no secret that the Dolphins and Vernon couldn't agree on a price. Miami could have placed the franchise tag on Vernon and paid him over $15 million dollars for one year, but they did not believe he was worth that much money. Thus, the transition tag came into play at $12.7 million dollars, which was ultimately an insurance policy for the Dolphins so they knew they could match any offer that Vernon received. As the official start of free agency grew closer, the Dolphins removed that tag as they got a better feel for the market. Additionally, they wanted to make sure that they would get a compensatory pick once the inevitable happened and Vernon left for another team.
Just a few hours into the free agency period, that scenario played out as Vernon received a five-year, $85 million dollar contract with the New York Giants. A whopping $52.5 million dollars of it is guaranteed. This guarantee, by the way, is bigger than what All-Pro and multiple time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt received two years ago when he signed a new contract with the Houston Texans. Is Vernon worth more than Watt? No way. There's also no way the Dolphins could have matched that, even if the transitional tag was still on Vernon when free agency opened.
Throwing money to the side, though, we want to get a good look as to whether or not the Dolphins made the right decision. Now, I'll be the first one to admit that the box score does not come close to telling the entire story. However, since it is much too complicated to go into the various details over a several year period, we will use the box score as a baseline and foundation.
The good news though is that much of that work outside the box score is already done as Ian Wharton of The Bleacher Report produced a phenomenal article that showed how many sacks were true because of Vernon. The answer? Two. In fact, it showed that the vast majority of sacks that Vernon accumulated in 2015 was because he was cleaning up the havoc that was caused by others on the defensive line.
So why did he get so much money on the open market and why couldn't Miami keep him? Many people will point to 2014 and say that the Dolphins should've had the foresight to predict this kind of production from Vernon. This belief is strengthened even more because he was coming off a season in 2013 with 11.5 sacks and 57 combined tackles. However, in 2012, he only had 3.5 sacks and 32 combined tackles. So was 2013 a fluke or was that really who he was? Well, in 2014 he had 6.5 sacks and 46 total tackles. You can see now why the Dolphins were hesitant - his numbers dropped in essentially every category. So, they placed their value on him early on in the 2014 league year but he and his agent thought he was worth more. They also likely already were seeing what Wharton was seeing - someone who cleaned up the mess but never truly created a sack on his own.
Then, as 2015 began and continued through the first part of the season, it was the Dolphins who looked like the smart ones as Vernon struggled to get much going. In fact, it took him until Week 8 to register his second sack of the season! After that, though, he turned it up a notch and had a monster second half and finished the season with 7.5 sacks and 61 combined tackles, which carried his momentum into free agency.
As a comparison, Watt had 17.5 sacks and 76 combined tackles in 2015. In 2014, he had 20.5 sacks and 78 total tackles. In 2013, he had 10.5 sacks and 80 tackles. His numbers are much more substantial than Vernon's, yet Vernon is now making more money than him.
Even Williams, who many said had an off-year, finished the season with 5 sacks. In 2014, he had 14.5 sacks and 42 total tackles. 2013 saw him reel in 13 sacks and 38 combined tackles. Chandler Jones of the New England Patriots had 12.5 sacks and 44 tackles in 2015. Wake, who only played the first half of the season, accumulated 7 sacks. In 2014, he had 11.5 sacks. Would you pick Vernon over any of these guys? My answer is a resounding no!
Don't get me wrong - all of this is not to say that Vernon is a bad player. He's a very good player in specific systems - one where he can get in there and clean up after everyone else has done their job and impacted the pocket.
However, there's a saying that players will get paid what the market dictates they are worth. This year's free agent class as a whole isn't spectacular so the good players will get paid like great players. That's why Vernon got paid so much. He was the best defensive end set to hit the market and any team that needed a pass rusher was going straight to Vernon. That's exactly what the Giants did as they fended off competition from the Jaguars and New York Jets.
At the end of the day, did the Dolphins get better at the defensive end position? That remains to be seen. They signed Mario Williams, who has been a very good NFL player but had an ineffective year in 2015. Some say it was due to a bad scheme fit while others say he has lost motivation to compete and play. With that said, though, in a wide-9 format, he should excel. Opposite Williams is a part-time player in Cameron Wake and one other end who the Dolphins have not yet found. They tried to get William Hayes, but he ultimately stayed with the Los Angeles Rams. They then turned their sets on Robert Ayers, but he canceled his visit and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They visited with Jason Jones but have not yet come to a deal with him. Moving forward, they will meet with Chris Clemons, who played in Seattle and most recently, Jacksonville. It's also possible they will draft a defensive end in the first two rounds of the draft, such as Shaq Lawson from Clemson.
Keep in mind though that even if the Dolphins had kept Vernon, they would still be in this same situation. There is no guarantee they would've signed Williams and Wake would still be a part-time player. So, while we just looked at both defensive end positions, it really is a comparison of Williams and Vernon.
Time will tell if the Dolphins' decision was the right one but based on all of the various factors, I am ready and willing to say that when we look back in a few years, we will be talking about how the Giants made a big mistake giving Vernon so much money.
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This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter! Follow @FinsInsider