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Olivier Vernon’s value about more than sacks, but those should be coming

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Olivier Vernon has one sack this season. Olivier Vernon has a $17 million cap hit this season. Those two sentences together have caused many to be frustrated with Vernon’s 2018. It’s fair to be frustrated — especially in the grand scheme of the Giants’ pass rush, which ranks 32nd in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders — but it should also be noted that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

To prove that, let’s look at some more numbers.

Vernon has just one sack in his six games this season, but he does have eight quarterback hits in that span. That leads all Giants defenders this season, which maybe says more about other Giants defenders, but that’s not a terrible pace. In fact, it’s quite good. Vernon’s eight hits in six games is a 1.3 hit per game pace, which would prorate to 21.3 hits over a full 16 games. Last season Joey Bosa had 21 quarterback hits and that was tied for 21st in the league. It’s not a league-best number, but it’s a productive pace. It’s also a much better pace than Vernon’s 2017, when he had 12 hits in 12 games.

If you stick with that hits per game average, Vernon’s 1.3 is 21st among defenders with at least five hits this season. That’s an average above “superior” pass rushers like Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram (both 1.27) or defenders with more sacks like Frank Clark (10 sacks, 1.18 hits per game) and Ryan Kerrigan (8 sacks, 0.91 hits per game).

But what about the sacks? The man gets paid to get sacks…

They’re going to come if Vernon keeps getting to the quarterback. Getting to the quarterback is the skill while taking him down before the pass is thrown has to rely more on timing and a little luck.

Over the course of a season, we can expect pass rushers to convert about 40 percent of their quarterback hits into sacks. That number was near 50 percent from 2011-2013, but over the past three seasons has dropped as quarterbacks have gotten the ball out quicker. Players who are substantially above or below that 40 percent mark are likely to see their sack numbers regress to the mean. There are some players who can consistently turn hits into sacks, but the majority are prone to regression.

Vernon’s 2018 is already a massive alarm for positive regression in the future. His one sack on eight hits comes out to a 12.5 percent conversion rate. Of the 144 defensive players with at least five quarterback hits this season, only three have converted hits to sacks at a lower rate. Obviously, that’s not ideal but it does give hope that more production is coming.

Here’s a look at those defenders plotted by hits and sacks this season.

Vernon is that red dot in the bottom left, which again isn’t good, but also so far away from expectation, there’s bound to be a rebound soon.

(Note: the guy all the way up at the top right is Aaron Donald, who is just playing a different sport than every other defender in the league).

Throughout Vernon’s career, he’s been able to add value even when he’s not racking up the sacks. That continues to be true in 2018.

The below play is from Vernon’s first game this season against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6. He pushed through left tackle Jason Peters and got to Carson Wentz right as he released the ball. It wasn’t a sack, but it impacted the throw and forced an incompletion.

That was a first-and-20 set up by Vernon, who forced a hold from Jason Peters on the previous play, where pressure almost resulted in an interception.

Against Washington in Week 8, Vernon was a factor disrupting the passing game without getting a sack. The below play was a second-and-10 and again Vernon got to the quarterback as the ball was being released. The hit was enough to push the ball wide of an open Jordan Reed inside the 20. Instead of a potential first-and-10 inside the red zone, Washington was forced to kick a field goal two plays later.

Later in the game, Vernon pushed through left tackle Trent Williams and got to Alex Smith as the pass was being released. The hit caused Smith’s pass to go to no one in particular and brought up a third-and-9, which Washington did not convert.

Fast forward to the game against the Eagles in Week 12. On a third-and-6 in the middle of the third quarter, the Giants used Vernon as an interior defender with Lorenzo Carter along with B.J. Hill and Mario Edwards on the ends. Vernon didn’t initially get pressure in the middle of a sloppy stunt attempt by the Giants, but he did notice Carson Wentz had room to his right so Vernon looped around to go after the quarterback. It was enough — along with pressure from Carter — to flush Wentz out of the pocket and force an off-balance throw that Grant Haley was able to break up on the goal line.

Earlier in the game — late in the first quarter — Vernon caused a sack he got no credit for creating. On a third-and-15 on the Eagles’ 44-yard line, Vernon again beat Jason Peters inside and got in Wentz’s face. He pushed the quarterback right into B.J. Hill who missed the tackle, but Mario Edwards was there to take Wentz down when he tried to reverse course again.

This season Vernon has been able to beat some of the league’s best offensive linemen — just in the clips above he was against Jason Peters and Trent Williams — those wins just haven’t resulted in sacks. But he is still impacting the game as a pass rusher and more than any other pass rusher on the Giants this season both on a per game basis and accounting for the full season. The numbers also suggest the sacks are going to come.

Can the Giants can afford to bank on those numbers rebounding in 2019? Vernon’s cap hit rises to $19.5 million next season and the Giants could free up $11.5 million be releasing him with just $8 million remaining in dead money or free $15.5 million by designating him a post-June 1 cut and spreading a $4 million dead money hit over two seasons. But if that does happen, the Giants would need to fill the void on the edge. Lorenzo Carter hasn’t shown enough to prove he’s capable of turning into a No. 1 edge rusher and it would also be a tough ask for a highly drafted rookie, should that be the case. And if it’s not, then the Giants would be dipping into free agency. That gets a mid-tier option like Kareem Martin at $7.25 million guaranteed over three years, which leaves a lot to be desired, or the Giants will pony up for another big edge rusher contract — likely spending the savings from cutting ties with Vernon.

There are going to be many layers to consider for a future Vernon decision — including his injury history with nine games missed over the past two seasons — but feeling like he hasn’t played well because of having just one sack so far in 2018 should not be a determining factor.