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Giants roster preview: Can Olivier Vernon meet giant expectations?

To do so, the high-priced free agent defensive end might need to have the best season of his career

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Olivier Vernon
Olivier Vernon
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Olivier Vernon has never been an All-Pro. He has never been to a Pro Bowl. He has never played on a team that reached the playoffs, or had a dominant defense. He had just 7.5 sacks last season and has only reached double digits in sacks (11.5) once in his four-year career.

Why then did the New York Giants break -- no, absolutely demolish -- the bank to sign the 25-year-old defensive end as a free agent, signing him to a market-altering five-year, $85 million deal with an outlandish $52 million guaranteed?

"Because all of the offensive coaches thought that he was the toughest player to play against last year. I thought that said it all," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said during mandatory minicamp. "Then you put on the tape and he is one of those guys that has a high motor and he makes a difference in the football game. Jerry Reese saw the same thing, Ben saw the same thing, everybody kind of felt the same way when we watched him."

Fact is, there really weren't any true difference-makers on the Giants' defense in 2015. It was a year when this proud franchise with a long, rich history of quarterback-terrorizing, defense-driven championships finished last in the league in yards allowed per game and consistently failed to get stops at critical game-turning junctures.

Vernon is a young pass rusher with all the tools ... We believe he's right at the beginning of his prime. - Jerry Reese

This was a team that didn't just need defensive players -- it needed special defensive players. A bunch of 'em, in fact. That's why Janoris Jenkins, a playmaking corner, replaced Prince Amukamara. It's why Damon Harrison, thought by many to be the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the league, replaced the aging Cullen Jenkins and try-hard-but-wasn't-good-enough Markus Kuhn.

It's why the Giants were willing to change the economic structure of the defensive end position to sign Vernon, an ascending player they believe can help transform a putrid defense into a powerful one and help remind people of the not-so-long-ago days when Giants' defensive ends were feared.

"Vernon is a young pass rusher with all the tools," GM Jerry Reese said when the Giants announced Vernon's signing. "He makes plays, and he plays the game with an edge. We believe he's right at the beginning of his prime and will continue to improve."

Can Vernon live up to the expectations? Will he be worth the gargantuan amount of money the Giants bestowed upon him? Can he help save Spagnuolo's job? Let's take a closer look at Vernon as we continue our series of player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the Giants will bring to training camp in just a few short days.

2015 Season in Review

Vernon had 7.5 quarterback sacks in 2015, a number that looks fairly pedestrian. There were, in fact 26 players who had more sacks last season than Vernon.

To understand what Vernon did and why the Giants are betting that entering his fifth season is just becoming a star player, you must look much deeper. So, let's do that.

Vernon had 18 tackles for loss in 2015. Only Khalil Mack, J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald had more. Only Watt and Donald surpassed Vernon's 36 quarterback hits. Only four defensive ends made more than Vernon's 61 tackles.

Those are all dominant numbers. We haven't, though, gotten to the best part. That would be the destructive force Vernon became over the final eight games of last season. Take it away, Pro Football Focus:

Over the first eight games of the 2015 season, Vernon's cumulative PFF grade was +1.3, and he had two sacks and 24 total pressures to his name. Over the final eight games of the season that grade was +53.6 and he had eight sacks and 57 total pressures.

His grade for the final eight games of the season alone would have ranked second-best among all edge rushers over the season, trailing only Oakland's Khalil Mack.

We undoubtedly saw an incredible peak to Vernon's play this past season. At his best, he was -- and is -- a devastating pass rusher who plays the run extremely well. He showed play that can rival any edge defender in football, but did so over just eight games.

That stretch is why the Giants, in Reese's words, believe that Vernon is "right at the beginning of his prime."

That is the player the Giants paid for, and that they will be expecting to get.

2016 Season Outlook

Michael Strahan. Leonard Marshall. George Martin. Osi Umenyiora. Justin Tuck. For a time and hopefully once again, Jason Pierre-Paul. For you old-timers, Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage. This is the pantheon of great Giants defensive ends.

The expectation for Vernon, given the most guaranteed money ever for a defensive end, is that in 2016 he will be dominant. That he will begin to etch his name on the tablet that includes the names of all of those great Giants defensive ends just named.

Vernon understands what he has gotten himself into:

"There's always going to be expectations, right," he said way back in March. "I know what work I have to put in to get to where I want to get to. It's all about having patience and working hard and being myself. Not having any type of outside influence faze me."

Out of his comfort zone

Everything is new to Vernon as he starts his Giants career.

In Miami, Vernon was never the headliner on defense. In Vernon's first three seasons with the Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake was the headliner, making the Pro Bowl in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and being named All-Pro in 2012. Wake played only seven games in 2015, but the headliner was Ndamukong Suh, by virtue of the monstrous six-year, $114.375 million ($59.955M guaranteed) free-agent contract Suh signed with Miami before the season.

Now, Vernon, by virtue of his own free-agent mega-deal, is the headliner. When a play needs to get made the Giants will look to him to make it. When pressure needs to be applied, the Giants will expect him to be bearing down on the opposing quarterback.

How will he handle that?

There's always going to be expectations. - Olivier Vernon

"I have worked for everything. Coming into the league my first year, I was on special teams. I had to work to get my playing time on the field and that is what I did come my second year and I have just been working for everything that I have gotten right now, so nothing has been given to me. I had to take everything, so right now this is just another opportunity for me to just prove my talents and go out there with something to prove," Vernon said in the spring.

There is one other major adjustment Vernon has to make -- being out of Miami for the first time in his life. The 25-year-old was born in Miami, played collegiately at Miami, was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Dolphins and spent his first four seasons with Miami.

The New York City/New Jersey area -- for a lot of reasons -- is not Miami.

"It's something that I wanted to do as far as have a change of pace," Vernon said during his introductory press conference. "My mom (Bernadette), she kind of mentioned it to me as well. She said I should see something different. There's a whole different world out there, and there isn't any better place to live than New York for the time being."

Vernon was again asked about the transition when OTAs began.

"I spent my whole life there. My whole life in Miami. 25 years. It's different. It's a different chapter. Being able to see something different, a bigger city, a faster pace, but it's always good to have a change of scenery from time to time and I'm glad I chose this spot to make my home."

The Giants are banking on Vernon having a long, successful stay in New York. And, hopefully, adding his name to that list of great defensive ends to have played -- and won championships -- with the Giants."I remember watching the games when I was younger, watching the games of them in the Super Bowl, them in the spotlight," Vernon said. "Those guys, they got after it. They set the standard of what a D-line should be, especially on the big stage like that. We just got to get back to that."

The Giants are paying him to lead the way. Soon enough, we will find out if their money was spent wisely.