He signed the most lucrative deal ever for a defensive end and is expected to return the Giants D to glory, but the former Dolphin says he’s ready to handle the heat. Plus other players who have to prove themselves in 2016, thoughts on the Luck contract, the college QB to watch this fall, and more
Meeting expectations won’t be complicated for Olivier Vernon in New York. He just needs to become the next great Giants pass-rusher, restore a proud-but-dormant defensive tradition, get the team back into the playoffs after four years away and extend 35-year-old Eli Manning’s championship window.
If he fails? Vernon gets real estate on the back pages in bank robber get-up.
That’s what he signed up for when he put pen to paper on a record-breaking, five-year, $85 million deal with the Giants in March. He knows it. In fact, he sought it out. And if you ask him about the pressure, Vernon isn’t exactly overcome by the prospect of having to live up to all that comes with
“It might sound crazy, but I’m moving at my own pace,” Vernon said last week before heading off for Europe, his last break before things heat up at the end of the month. “It’s how I’ve always been, never letting anything on the outside pressure me. I’m true to myself, and being the player that I am. I’m not gonna start doing things I haven’t done before, step outside the box or anything like that.
“I know what type of player I am. And the main part of it is playing my game. I know if I play my game, I’ll be OK.”
Team-building season is now, for the most part, done. Free agency, the draft and 10 weeks of spring work are in the rear-view mirror. Everyone is undefeated. Everyone is in the best shape of his career. And everyones has a new, innovative plan that assures that, this time, things will be different.
All that changes in a few weeks. And for a select few, when camp opens in late July, the heat gets turned up.
Vernon isn’t the only player on his own defense who fits into that category—the Giants, who ranked last in the league in total defense in 2015, committed $58 million in cash this year alone for Vernon, ex-Rams corner Janoris Jenkins and ex-Jets nosetackle Damon Harrison; then spent three of their first four draft picks on that side of the ball. The implication is obvious.
“This organization, they’ve been prestigious on defense,” Vernon said. “The history they have, that’s why the Giants selected us. They picked us to uphold that standard. And right now it’s about putting those pads on and getting to work, and gelling together. Those teams had great chemistry, and that doesn’t pop up overnight. It builds. We’re trying to build something here.”
But there’s no question a lot of the burden will fall on the man Miami coaches called “Smooth,” and the Giants’ balance sheets explain that in a way that no coach or executive ever could. In March, the deal they gave the ex-Dolphin set marks for average per year ($17 million), one-, two- and three-year cash flow ($29 million, $41 million, $54 million) and full guarantee ($40 million) for a defensive end.
Will that change Vernon, as it has some other past free-agent bonus babies? One Dolphin coach put it like this: “He’s not very talkative, he marches to the beat of his own drum, and that could be taken the wrong way in New York. He doesn’t show emotion, and the media may spin that. But as far as the money going to his head, that won’t happen at all. He’ll want to prove they did the right thing. That’ll be a motivator for him.”
So here’s some proof. A few weeks back, Vernon’s agent, Dave Canter, had a weekend planned to celebrate 20 years in the business, and wanted to take all his clients with him. Vernon initially balked, worried it would mess up his workout plan. Eventually he was coaxed into going, but only after he and new Ravens safety Eric Weddle set up a plan to get early-morning lifts in.
A little piece of that is how jacked Vernon is to get going after spending 10 weeks with his new team and, in particular, around Eli Manning. “How he carries himself, how he practices, he’s the leader of the team,” Vernon said. “Eli wants to win.” But the bigger part is who Vernon has always been, in growing from third-round pick to valuable Cam Wake sidekick and now to defensive centerpiece.
“I’ve never changed anything about my work ethic,” he said. “The last four years, I always had my foot on the gas pedal. I strive for greatness, to put my name in the books. That’s what I want to establish. All I have is my last name. People see you, they go by your last name. I take a lot of pride in what that’ll stand for.”
The Giants have made a pretty healthy wager that his name will become much more well-known going forward than it was before he broke the bank. And they weren’t the only team making that sort of bet in March or April.
As we turn to July and start thinking about the opening of training camps, here are a half-dozen others who’ll be pivotal when things heat back up.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Texans: Houston’s defense is bordering on championship ready, and the offense was juiced with speed (Will Fuller, Braxton Miller and Lamar Miller) this offseason to accentuate the big arm of the ex-Bronco and take the pressure off DeAndre Hopkins. Now, all that’s left is for Osweiler to deliver.
Malik Jackson, DL, Jaguars: Another ex of the world champs, Jackson goes from a complementary part in Denver to a major building block in North Florida, where he’ll be a veteran for a defense counting on a lot of young guys (Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack) to keep up with their promising offensive counterparts.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys: Dallas COO Stephen Jones told me he viewed taking Elliott as similar to the team’s all-in move to trade for Joey Galloway at the end of Troy Aikman’s career. It’s about maximizing their window with Tony Romo. Elliott was promising in OTAs. That’s good, because the training wheels won’t be on long.
Ryan Clady, LT, Jets: I asked Vernon about his goals for 2016. He shared one: “Main goal is to stay healthy.” Suffice it to say, same goes across town for Clady. Once an elite young left tackle, Clady has missed 30 of 48 games the last three years. The issue here, if he can’t turn that around, is that the Jets have very shaky depth behind him.
Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers: This one could loom large for a number of reasons. First, he replaces a mainstay in the retired Heath Miller. Second, with Martavis Bryant suspended for the season, the Steelers need others to take the heat off Antonio Brown. And third, he’ll have more opportunity than he did when he was jockeying for snaps with Antonio Gates in San Diego.
Coby Fleener, TE, Saints: Coming out of Stanford and through four years in Indy, Fleener was pigeonholed by scouts as a “matchup” guy. Now he goes to the ultimate matchup offense, one that’s hugely tight-end friendly and in need of middle-of-the-field options for Drew Brees. The Saints paid Fleener like they did (five years, $36 million) for a reason.
The Next Big Thing. There’s been some question as to the depth of quarterback talent on the horizon coming out of college. But there’s not much question, as far as I can tell, on which guy heads into the 2016 season with the highest NFL ceiling. With all due respect to Clemson’s DeShaun Watson, a number of teams I’ve talked to over the last few months are already looking forward to 2018, when UCLA’s Josh Rosen will be draft-eligible. And so I texted with Bruins coach Jim Mora last week to get some insight on how he sees his true sophomore as a prospect, given that the former Falcons and Seahawks coach spent 25 years working in the NFL. “His potential is unlimited,” Mora said of Rosen. “He would have been the best QB in the draft this year. There’s no question about his ability, only experience and, at this point, maturity. He’s special. And he is smart, a leader, and very well respected by his teammates. He works hard and gets it. Just needs to continue to grow and not think he’s arrived.”
That last part right there goes into the feedback I’ve gotten from NFL people who’ve asked around on him—they have questions about Rosen’s maturity. As it’s been explained to me, scouts will be keeping an eye on whether there’s a sense of entitlement in how Rosen carries himself. This fall will provide a good test on that end, with UCLA going from a spread offense to a pro-style look, which should accentuate Rosen’s strengths, but also will require plenty of work.
Luck’s Big Deal. The idea of a football player striking a deal worth nearly $25 million per year when the previous standard was just over $22 million per certainly got the attention of a lot of people last week. But was it really that crazy? In 2012, Drew Brees became the first player to break the $20 million APY barrier, and that number represented 16.6 percent of that year’s cap number ($120.6 million). In 2013, Aaron Rodgers moved the bar to $22 million APY, which was 17.8 percent of that year’s cap figure ($123 million). Luck’s new-money APY is $24.594 million. That’s 15.8 percent of this year’s cap figure ($155.27 million). So the argument could be made here that quarterback contracts aren’t even keeping up with natural NFL inflation. And as for the argument that Luck’s 2015 season should’ve given the Colts pause about doing a deal like this … please. Luck joined a cap-strapped and gutted team in 2012 and led it to the playoffs three years in a row. Last year the dam broke around the quarterback, but to juxtaposing his situation to the one, say, Russell Wilson walked into in 2012 or Joe Flacco entered in 2008 or Ben Roethlisberger came into in 2004 isn’t even close to apples to apples.
Changing Seahawks dynamic. In the 2013 offseason, the Seahawks matched the noise they made the previous year by adding Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin to a burgeoning young roster that was on the cusp of being title ready. The result: a Super Bowl title. The challenge then for Pete Carroll and John Schneider was getting a group of relative neophytes ready. Doug Baldwin’s contract last week shows that, now, the challenge is much different. During that championship season, the homegrown core of seven centerpieces (Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Baldwin, K.J. Wright, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner) counted for a total of $10.274 million against the cap—a staggeringly low $1.47 million per player. That’s the upshot of hitting on so many later-round picks (Thomas is the only first-rounder in the group), and it allowed the brass to aggressively supplement the nucleus with more young talent. Three years later, those seven players, all signed to new deals, are set to account for $70.854 million, or $10.122 million per player. And when you work in deals for Avril and Bennett, and the one they traded for when they brought in Jimmy Graham, it’s easy to see that the pressure now, for Schneider and Carroll, has shifted. Now, the Seahawks brain trust has to find cheaper talent to fill holes, and that brings you right back to finding and developing young talent, which is how they had that core so cheap in the first place. Two areas to watch in that regard in 2016: offensive line and running back.
Buddy’s legacy. Defensive innovation is always going to be the way that we link the late Buddy Ryan with his sons Rex and Rob, but with Rex in particular there’s something else that stuck me when the elder Ryan passed away last week. The “30 for 30” on the 1985 Bears that came out late last year ended with players from that team receiving and then reading—or trying to read—a letter that an ailing Buddy sent them, calling the guys “my heroes.” Several players broke down while struggling to narrate the contents of the letter. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, as he read the letter silently to himself, got too emotional to get the words there out. And that reminds you that, following Super Bowl XX, Ryan was carried off the field by those guys, something that never happens with an assistant coach.
When I saw the clip from the “30 for 30” on ESPN, I thought about a conversation I had with Rex in 2010. He was pissed that Darrelle Revis didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year for 2009, and he was still incensed after nine months—which included a nasty contract dispute—had passed. “When I was championing the cause for him to be Defensive Player of the Year, he earned it,” Rex said. “I’ve never seen a guy earn it more than he did. I mean, he allowed us to do things you just can’t do. And if he slips, it’s a touchdown. Where was that? It doesn’t even occur to us that anything like that can ever happen to him. He’s just that competitive, he’s got that much courage. It’s not normal.” He had Revis’s back, which, of course, is why players like playing for Rex—not much different than why guys liked playing for Buddy.
1. Changing attitudes about marijuana raise a question that needs to be asked: What’s the value in the NFL testing for it at all anymore? This isn’t to excuse guys who’ve been busted. They know the rules. It’s on them if they can’t pass a drug test. It’s just getting harder to see the benefit in screening for a drug that’s as legal as alcohol in four states. If guys get arrested for it where it’s illegal, that’s one thing. Actively trying to find out who’s smoking is another.
2. Déjà vu for the Cowboys—who’ll be down at linebacker and defensive end early in the season for the second straight year. Last year Rod Marinelli’s crew actually played well in Weeks 1 and 2 without Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy. The dam only really broke after Tony Romo went down and the defense had to prop up a suddenly deficient offense. This year McClain is suspended again, as are defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence. So there’s another reason why keeping Romo upright has to be a priority in 2016.
3. Credit to Jason Pierre-Paul for participating in public service announcements on fireworks leading up to the July 4 holiday. He’s got no one to blame but himself for last year’s incident, but you gotta be able to swallow your pride to take an embarrassing episode like that and use it to help others. Good for him.
TWO PLAYERS TO WATCH AT THE START OF CAMP
Raiders OLB Bruce Irvin. Last year, new Oakland coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton resolved to use Khalil Mack down as a defensive end on a more consistent basis to make the most of his best skill—getting after the passer. Suffice it to say, it worked. Mack had 15 sacks in 2015 and enters his third season as one of the NFL’s most feared players on either side of the ball. And so, to make teams pay for throwing the kitchen sink at Mack, Oakland signed Irvin away from Seattle in March. The Raiders are listing him as a linebacker for now, but rival evaluators see something else coming. “His most productive NFL season came as a rookie, when he rushed from a three-point stance,” said one NFC pro scouting director. “Playing opposite Khalil Mack, he’d see a lot of one-on-one matchups he can win [if they use him as an end].” And that’s why the suspicion here is that Norton, who knows Irvin from having coached him in Seattle, could transition Irvin down like he did Mack last year.
Patriots OT Nate Solder. New England’s offensive line wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire early in the 2015 season, but things really came undone after Solder tore his biceps in Week 5. Opponents regarded Solder as far and away the team’s most capable linemen, and the Patriots simply can’t allow a 39-year-old Tom Brady to again take the kind of beating he did down the stretch last year. As one AFC exec put it, having Solder out there “should give Tom a feeling of security” that Brady lacked at the end of last year. “It’s huge,” said an opposing defensive coach. “When [Solder’s] healthy, he’s hard to beat.” And it also could lead to less shuffling. “They had a lot of combinations they had to manage on the line—they even platooned at guard,” said another AFC exec. “So to get as far as they did while managing that situation was commendable.” Which is a nice way of saying that things will be a lot easier on homecoming line coach Dante Scarnecchia if Solder comes back solid as he was before. Which is also pretty obvious to anyone who watched the way last year ended for the Patriots.
With things shut down in the NFL over the last few weeks, I’m shutting it down here until the week before camp.
As always, keep the feedback coming.
This column started when I was at the Boston Globe, renting the Sunday Notes space that’ll always be owned in those pages by the great Will McDonough. I liked doing it so much that I took it with me to NFL Network/NFL.com, and Peter King liked it enough there that he wanted me to keep it going here when I joined The MMQB.
But the strength of it has always been how it evolves. Every year it looks different. I’ll add stuff. I’ll take stuff out. I’ll do what I need to make it entertaining and easy to get through. We’ll definitely be adding some video elements once the season starts (we’re toying with it already), and some other features could change too. So if you have any suggestions for what you’d like to see, hit me on Twitter (@AlbertBreer) or my public Facebook page (facebook.com/AlbertRBreer), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m pumped to see where we take this next.