Big-Money Defensive End Was Brought In To Upgrade Pass Rush, But It's Not Working So Far

By Ryan Chatelain
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Through five games, Olivier Vernon has been way more dud than stud.

And if the Giants’ high-priced defensive end doesn’t deliver a big game soon, you’d better believe the talk of him being a bust will gain more momentum than a runaway locomotive.

The ex-Dolphin was the centerpiece of Big Blue’s defensive overhaul in March. He received a staggering five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million guaranteed.

But what do the Giants have to show for it? One sack and a stay in last place. Pro Football Focus ranks Vernon as the league’s 28th best edge pass rusher this season. Not exactly elite, like his paycheck would suggest.

Vernon certainly isn’t the Giants’ lone problem, but when you’re the fifth-highest paid defensive player in the NFL and you’re not producing, you’re going to be a magnet for criticism.

He can thank the Odell Beckham Jr. soap opera and Eli Manning’s struggles for taking the heat off of him so far. But the clock is running out on Vernon’s honeymoon period.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has blamed a wrist injury for Vernon’s slow start — Giants fans better hope he’s right. But the truth is the signing — at least at that price — was always questionable.

Among the top 10 richest defensive players in terms of annual salary, Vernon is the only one never selected to a Pro Bowl. He gets paid more than both Houston’s J.J. Watt and Kansas City’s Justin Houston, who have combined for eight Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro selections.

But after finishing with the last-ranked defense in 2015, the Giants were desperate to make changes and had more than $50 million in salary cap space burning a hole. General manager Jerry Reese, whose seat will be searing if the Giants (2-3) miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, couldn’t very well go back to his fan base and say he missed out on some free agents because he was being frugal with a massive pile of cash, could he?

So the Giants overpaid. Which you can live with if Vernon produces at least above-average results. Instead, he’s been virtually invisible as a pass rusher, and it’s having a ripple effect throughout the Giants’ defense. The team ranks last in the NFL in sacks with four. Meanwhile, that lack of pressure on opposing QBs — which Jason Pierre-Paul (one sack also) shares the blame for — has plenty to do with why the Giants have just two interceptions.

By most accounts, Vernon has all the tools and looks the part. But he has yet to produce consistently in his five-year career — or at all in his short time as a Giant.

He enjoyed a breakout season in 2013 with 11½ sacks. But despite playing in every game in 2014 and 2015, Vernon had just 6½ and 7½ sacks, respectively. Or to put that on the J.J. Watt meter — about one-third of the production of the Texans’ lesser-paid superstar.

Vernon was brought in to upgrade the Giants’ nonexistent pass rush of a year ago. But ironically, he had two fewer sacks in 2015 than the man he replaced, Robert Ayers (9½ sacks) — and Vernon costs over $10 million a year more.

Regardless, the Giants salivated over the possibility of signing him this offseason. Coach Ben McAdoo described watching film in preparation of last year’s game against the Dolphins and noticing that Vernon was “one of the most disruptive players” he had seen all year.

You almost have to wonder if he based his opinion mostly on the film from the Dolphins’ previous game, against the Ravens. In that contest, Vernon was indeed a beast, amassing 2½ sacks, including a key one in the fourth quarter that knocked Baltimore out of field goal range.

Those 2½ sacks, however, accounted for a third of Vernon’s total on the season. During his best year, in 2013, nearly half of his 11½ sacks came in a two-week span.

So it’s not surprising there is some good tape out there on Vernon. But there’s plenty of mediocre tape, too, suggesting he’s perhaps nothing more than an occasional matchup nightmare.

The Giants clearly didn’t pay Vernon based on what he has proven in the past; they took a gamble and paid him on the come.

Maybe the Vernon they envisioned will arrive in time.

But because of his hefty price tag, expect the level of impatience from fans to increase exponentially with each passing week.

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain

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