Can Olivier Vernon Become Elite Pass Rusher for Miami Dolphins?

By Cody Strahm
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If one were to ask any Miami Dolphins fan before the season began who would be leading the team in sacks through 12 games, most, if not all, would undoubtedly say Cameron Wake. Wake remains one of the league’s most explosive pass rushers, but a knee injury that slowed him down for nearly a month is a big reason why he has only registered 6.5 sacks thus far.

Knowing of Wake’s injury beforehand and faced with the aforementioned question, many Dolphins fans would tell you the team’s leading sack man would have to be rookie Dion Jordan. The third-overall pick of April’s draft has displayed some elite potential rushing the passer in his first year, but he has yet to play the majority of Miami’s defensive snaps in any game.

Surprisingly, it’s second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon who leads the Dolphins with 10 sacks. Vernon showcased some raw ability as a rookie but only managed 3.5 sacks. That previously raw ability is much more polished a year later.

In the Dolphins’ 23-3 victory over the New York Jets this past Sunday, Vernon dropped 2.5 sacks, which made him the ninth player in franchise history to record a double-digit sack total for a season. Vernon’s 10 sacks through 13 weeks put him into a tie for sixth in the entire NFL.

With Wake going through somewhat of a down year and Jordan struggling to see the field, Vernon’s emergence has been just what the Dolphins’ defense needs. It’s also unquestionably been a welcomed relief to GM Jeff Ireland, whose ability to evaluate talent has been heavily scrutinized.

Ireland’s draft classes have left something to be desired, but Vernon is becoming a wise investment for a third-round pick. And if Vernon is able sustain this success rushing the passer while Wake returns to his consistent form and Jordan finds his stride, the sky would become the limit for the Dolphins’ pass rush.

Wake and Jordan are likely to fulfill their part, but can Vernon really keep this up?

Being that he’s only 23 years old, there’s reason to believe he can with continued development. Although he’s on pace for 13.3 sacks in 2013, improvement is still in order if Vernon hopes to become one of the league’s premier pass rushers, though.

Vernon’s sophomore sack total has been propelled by great coverage in the secondary and quarterback scrambles. According to Pro Football Focus, Vernon actually has a -0.3 pass-rushing grade this season which means he isn’t consistently abusing left tackles.

Vernon deserves credit for a relentless pursuit and making the most out his pressures. But while he ranks third in the entire NFL for sacks by a 4-3 defensive end, he’s only 33rd at the position in additional quarterback hits with four and 12th in additional hurries with 29.

All that means is Vernon still has plenty of room to grow as a pass rusher. It doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of becoming a perennial double-digit sack artist; it just hints that his current sack total could be somewhat of an aberration.

With all of the tools to continue ascending the future looks bright for Vernon. His ability to get after the quarterback could be a key ingredient to a potential Dolphins’ playoff push.

He’s just not an elite pass rusher yet.

Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.

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