The highest-paid defensive player in NFL history is on a mission to shake up the AFC East and prove himself worthy of the Dolphins’ money
DAVIE, Fla. — The Dolphins’ $114 million man was standing in the lobby of the team’s practice facility, near the banners and memorabilia from championships past. Even in late August, Ndamukong Suh was still getting adjusted to his new surroundings, but two things were clear: He’s out to prove he’s worth the money, and he wants to be among the franchise’s greatest legends. Suh was the big fish in free agency this year, the game-changing defensive tackle whom the Lions let walk. He arrived in Miami with visions of sacking Tom Brady dancing in his head. The Dolphins’ spending sprees in recent years haven’t worked out so well, notably the $60 million contract two years ago to now ex-Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace, but Suh is adamant that his presence will change not just Miami’s defense . . . the richest defender in football also hopes to shake up the AFC East.
VRENTAS: There’s been a lot of talk, particularly from head coach Joe Philbin, about building a tougher Dolphins team in 2015. Do you think you were brought here to add toughness to the defense?
SUH: I hope so, and I hope so in a positive way. Just listening to him through team meetings and in conversations we have had personally, it’s mental toughness. Understanding the ups and downs of the season and being able to go with them. There are always going to be ups and downs at some point in time. We’ve got to have the mental toughness, and also the physical toughness, to grind through those particular situations and make sure you stick together.
VRENTAS: You build your game around physical toughness, don’t you?
SUH: Oh yeah. I think at all levels, no matter what position you are in, whether you are a quarterback who is not supposed to get touched during camp, or a running back who is going to get hit every single play, no matter what, whether you are wearing shells or full pads. You’ve got to be able to have that physical toughness. It’s being able to withstand those constant beatings, in whatever position you are in, and mentally get through those.
“Some people are going to continue to think I am the worst person on the earth . . . I am a very good-hearted, soft-spoken person.”
VRENTAS: When you played in Detroit, we were used to see you playing a style in which you attacked upfield. Will it be similar here?
SUH: Without question. It will definitely be similar. There will be some changes in the things I will be asked to do, but it will be very similar to what we did last year as well as the years before. But at the end of the day, you can only play 3-technique and inside 2-technique so many different ways. I prefer, no matter what, to attack and get after the offensive linemen and have them on their heels rather than me be on my heels.
VRENTAS: What are some of those changes in how you’ll be used?
SUH: We just have different ways of blitzing that I am getting adjusted to. Different concepts that we work on. Every defensive line, every defensive coordinator, has their own ways of wanting to run their systems. There are only so many different blitzes you can run, but everyone calls them differently, has different terminology for them and their own twist on it. It may be a similar blitz that I can recall from last year or the years before, and we may do it a little bit differently, so that’s what I mean by a little bit different.
VRENTAS: How do you want your presence to change the Dolphins’ defense?
SUH: I hope it is a positive change and moving in a direction to be a top-five defense. Obviously we’d love to be No. 1, but top five at the very least. I think we’ll accomplish that. And that’s what I’ve always had a vision for, of being a guy who comes to a team—whether it is each and every year, if I’m with the same team, like I was in Detroit the last five years, or coming to a new team—and jelling them together, bringing them together, to become a top-five defense. Last year, we were the No. 1 defense for the majority of the year, and we just got edged out by Seattle. But in the run game we were No. 1. So overall defense, if we can be at least top 5, we’ll be where we want to be.
VRENTAS: Do you hope your addition to the Dolphins could also change the status quo in the AFC East?
SUH: The Patriots are obviously the world champions, and they are going to remain that until February of 2016, when somebody else takes the crown from them. Until that day, everybody is competing and trying to beat the Patriots. Even though I have been in the NFC, I’ve played against the Patriots [all but one] year that I have been in the league [in regular season or preseason]. I’m used to Tom Brady and his team and that coaching staff. Once we start to game-plan teams and go into that type of schematics of the season, without question, we want to be able to change—I want to be a part of the Dolphins defense that changes the dynamic of the AFC. Last year there was a comment that I never forgot, [a media report] said east of Mississippi, the Miami Dolphins defensive line was the best. I took that to heart, especially because I felt my guys up in Detroit were a crew to reckon with. But obviously I hope that’s true this year, that east of the Mississippi—and west of the Mississippi, as well—the Miami Dolphins are the best defensive line.
VRENTAS: Who said that?
SUH: I don’t remember, but one of my coaches sent me the clip last year. I just remember the headline of it. You could say it’s a little bit of motivation, but it was kind of a dagger to say that about a team that had the No. 1 run defense. For them to say that, they obviously don’t look at the overall dynamic of what a defensive line can do for a team. The thing that we hung our hat on last year was that we were the No. 1 defense playing the run, especially holding teams under 100 yards, and that’s what I plan to do here, is have these guys understand that it’s very disrespectful for any team to feel like they can run the ball on us. One team that I look forward to playing against is the Jets, because they were one of two teams last year that put 100 yards against me and the Detroit run defense. There are things that you don’t forget, and you don’t like, and you want to go out there and hopefully have another opportunity the following year, if you are lucky enough to be on the team they’re playing, to go and rectify that.
VRENTAS: It sounds like you accumulate a lot of specific motivators?
SUH: There’s no question. And most importantly, I look at it as, it’s as simple as this: You want to be undefeated at home, and everybody knows it’s tough in this league to win on the road, but if you can split on the road, you’re 12-4 and you’ll be in the playoffs. If you want to look at simple math, you go about it that way.
VRENTAS: So what is your biggest motivation for this season?
SUH: To win. We talk about being able to be successful in your own right—individual success and being rewarded for that, being able to go to Pro Bowls, All-Pros and gain a good contract. But at the end of the day, I want a legacy of being a winner. And helping teams, whether that was in Detroit or here in Miami, but more especially here now that I am down here in Miami, is to be a successful organization when I am a part of it, and leave a great legacy. That’s what I went to Nebraska for, and that’s what I looked forward to coming here for: helping this team to get back to their promised land, back when you had all these greats, Dan Marino and everybody else before me, who set the tone. I don’t think we have no-namers . . . I think we have guys who can play up to that level, and we have a defensive line that can, without question, hopefully get close to that. I think it will be very, very tough for us to go 16-0, but why not strive for it and why not come close to it?
VRENTAS: What was the hardest part of leaving Detroit?
SUH: The hardest part, in all honesty, was coach [Jim] Caldwell and his staff. They were without question a first-class staff, and a staff that, even though I was only with them for a year, I very much enjoyed every bit of my time with them on the field and off the field. I appreciated the way they did things. I think I will create that bond here with [defensive line] coach [Terrell] Williams and [assistant defensive line coach] Charlie [Bullen] and the defensive line room, as well as coach Philbin and being able to have open communication with him. I think my relationship with the front office down here will be 10 times better than it was in Detroit.
VRENTAS: That sounds like it might feed into the second part of my question—what was the easiest part of leaving Detroit?
SUH: People can have their particular opinions of it. I’m not a person who holds grudges. I feel like I had a pretty straightforward and good relationship with [GM] Martin Mayhew. Indifferent with [team president] Tom Lewand. But at the end of the day, it’s about going out and producing on the football field, and building relationships with the guys that you play with and that you’re in the fight with every single day in practice and every single game for 17 weeks. And if you are lucky enough, we got to Week 18 a couple times. Those are the ones that you cherish and enjoy. Playing with C.J. Mosley, who I was lucky enough to bring down here and have be a part of this team. I’ll miss playing with Ziggy [Ansah] of course, a good young kid, as well as Caraun [Reid], [Jason Jones], and a handful of guys. But if you look at the team, [most] of the defensive tackles that were there last year aren’t there now. Caraun is by himself. Each and every year, you’ve got to go out there and revisit, and re-bring your group of guys who are in the room together, to be able to create a special bond that particular year.
VRENTAS: Do you feel like the front office in Detroit should have done more to keep you?
SUH: At the end of the day, they chose the way they wanted to go about it, and they made their own decision, and I had to make my own decision, which was best for me and my family. And let bygones be bygones.
VRENTAS: Why Miami? Was it just the money?
SUH: No, definitely not. I definitely left money on the table.
VRENTAS: You did?
SUH: There’s no question about that. I could have gone a couple other places and gotten more money. I think from the front office, the ownership group, this was one of the special ones. I’ve said it many times, the sports science institution we have here with Wayne Diesel heading that up, as well as our facilities, which are beyond one of the best I’ve ever been around and seen. Working with Mary Ellen [Bingham], our sports nutritionist, as well as our weight room. And I felt with the talent we have on this team, we have a great opportunity to win games and hopefully go all the way. We’ve got a great young quarterback who is definitely deserving of what he just received in his contract. We have a young defensive line. Even Cam [Wake] has only been in the NFL for seven years, and I feel he’s got lots and lots of juice left within him. I’m excited to play with him. Like I said, when I saw that comment that east of the Mississippi, their defensive line was one of the best, I took a look to see who was down here. Seeing Cam, seeing Earl Mitchell, seeing Olivier Vernon. ‘O.V.’ was very, very surprising; I had never heard of him until I saw that comment and looked at their team and saw his production. So being able to come and be a part of that, I think is something special. Looking at their secondary, with Reshad Jones, and having played with Louis Delmas for four years in Detroit. They’ve obviously got a strong left tackle in Branden Albert. I played against this team, so I know what I saw, and I liked what I saw.
VRENTAS: What other teams offered to pay you more?
SUH: I’ll let my agent handle that one, if he ever wants to answer that question.
VRENTAS: You played Aaron Rodgers twice a year in the NFC North. Now you will be playing Tom Brady twice a year in the AFC East. Do you think he’s a guy you can rattle with pressure up the middle?
SUH: I think any quarterback doesn’t want to get hit, especially when it is coming up their face, right into their face. I’ve played against Brady [all but one] year that I’ve been in the league. Two years in the regular season, and two years in the preseason. We played him on Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed sacking him that particular Thanksgiving. That was my rookie year. I definitely understand how they play and some of their schematics. I think with the secondary we have on this particular team, we will match up a lot better with them. Not to take anything away from the guys in Detroit, but I just think there is a little bit better talent here. That’s my opinion.
VRENTAS: Late last year, you were initially suspended and then instead fined $70,000 for stepping on Rodgers’ leg during your Week 17 game against Green Bay. What did you think about again being labeled by some as a dirty player after that incident?
SUH: Honestly I don’t care, because people are going to say what they want to say, and they are going to do what they want to do. I know who I am, I understand how I play, and at the end of the day, some people are going to continue to think I am the worst person on the earth. That’s their opinion, and that’s their right if they want to say that. But I’m going to go out there and continue to wreak havoc and do my job and make it Aaron Rodgers’ or any quarterback’s living nightmare. That’s my goal.
VRENTAS: Did that incident, or the dirty-player reputation, come up in free-agent discussions with any teams this offseason?
SUH: If it was, it wasn’t brought up directly to me. And it didn’t come through from my agent. You’d have to ask those people if that was a worry on their mind. If I remember correctly, when we had a question at the press conference [when I signed] directly to [Dolphins owner] Mr. [Stephen] Ross, he said he did his homework. He talked to people that knew me, and he saw my background and knew he didn’t have anything to worry about. For a man of that stature to say that, and to take his time to do that, I plan to continue to keep that truth to him. I am who I am, and I know I am a very good-hearted, soft-spoken person.
VRENTAS: When you became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, is that a mantle you want to hold as long as possible, or are you rooting for another guy to get even more money?
SUH: I think anybody takes pride in it. I take pride in it for sure, and I think every single player should garner and be deserving of as much money as they can possibly gain. This league is one of the most powerful leagues in the world, and one of the richest leagues in the world, so I should benefit from that. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to benefit from it. But I’m going to show that I was worth it at every single step of the way. And I want the next young defensive lineman that is deserving of it to surpass me. I don’t want to remain the highest paid defensive player by any means. For maybe a year or two, whatever it may be, but if there is the next guy who has come up through the ranks, put in his work, put in his time, he should easily surpass me.
VRENTAS: Speaking of money, what do you get out of your friendship with billionaire Warren Buffett?
SUH: Great advice. He’s obviously one of the richest people in the world, but he’s also one of the smartest people in the world, in my opinion. For as many people that I’ve been around in the business world, and obviously I’m still young so there’s plenty more for me to learn, but he is a great mentor to learn from at an early age. He has a very conservative approach, and really a steady approach; not an erratic approach of saying, ‘Oh, invest in all these sporadic things.’ The smart conservative mind-set that he has and he talks about in his annual meetings is something I look for and love and enjoy talking to him about.
VRENTAS: You realize you are about to face a ticked off Tom Brady this season, a quarterback who has something to prove after Deflategate?
SUH: Oh, I’m excited about it. I look forward to it. I respect Tom, and I think in our interactions with each other, we have mutual respect, even though we are on opposite sides of the ball and separate teams. He’s actually one of the enjoyable quarterbacks that I love being able to be hit, and look him in his eyes, pick him up off the ground, and say, ‘I’m coming after you again, buddy.’
VRENTAS: What do you respect about Brady?
SUH: I just think our personal interactions with each other, and watching him play and his craft, I admire it. At the end of the day, it’s my job to tear that down and not allow him to be successful. But I just have a mutual respect for him. Every single time we have come across each other, whether it is on the field or in person, he’s just a good dude.
VRENTAS: I read that your first name means ‘House of Spears’ in Cameroon. What does that mean to you?
SUH: It’s a name that I hold very close to me. I’m named after my great-grandfather; I’m really named after a street that was named after him. There’s royalty in my family, so I hold my name and my lineage behind me in very high regard.
VRENTAS: Is it really true that this great-grandfather was 7 feet, 3 inches tall?
SUH: Mm-hm. He was a tall man. We’ve got tall people in our family. It skips some generations, but I was fortunate enough to get some of it.