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Olivier Vernon has played better than you think

Defensive end only has two sacks, but that isn’t the whole story

NFL: New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
Olivier Vernon
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants gave Olivier Vernon a five-year, $85 million contract with $52.5 million guaranteed during the offseason, primarily to try and fix a pass rush that was among the league’s worst a season ago.

Well, so far this season the Giants have a league-worst 11 sacks and Vernon has only two after accumulating 25.5 over the past three seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

That has led to criticism of Vernon, and of the Giants’ decision to toss all that money at him.

Thing is, Vernon has played much better than his paltry sack total indicates.

Now, after my rant a couple of weeks ago about the Giants spinning a “sacks aren’t a big deal” story simply because they aren’t getting many, it might seem incongruous to defend Vernon. He has yet to really deliver in the category he is truly paid for, but you absolutely do have to look beyond the sack total to see Vernon’s value.

He has 18 quarterback hurries, tied for third in the league behind Aaron Donald (23) and Von Miller (21). Incidentally, Jason Pierre-Paul also has 18.

Hurries, as we have said again and again, are not as good as sacks that change field position and sometimes force fumbles. Sometimes, though, they are good enough to make a real difference.

SB Nation contributor Stephen White, a former NFL defensive lineman, had good things to say about Vernon’s play. Here is what White said, via Twitter:

“He has been pass rushing well but just has had some buzzard luck when it comes to sacks from QBs just getting the ball away to flags in the secondary taking them away as IIRC. Maybe the most underrated thing is how well he has also played against the run which rarely gets mentioned. I suspect that because sacks tend to come in bunches his sack numbers will start coming up soon, but he has gotten a ton of pressures and beaten his man 1 on 1 a lot.”

Vernon did lose a Week 2 sacks against the New Orleans Saints due to a penalty on Giants’ defensive lineman Romeo Okwara.

As White mentioned, Vernon’s run defense is underappreciated. So is his effort, and the fact that despite a wrist injury that has limited his ability to utilize his left hand and forced him to switch sides on the defensive line, Vernon has played more than 91 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps.

Watch the play below. The only Giants’ defensive lineman in recent memory I can think of who could have, or would have, made this play is the guy being inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor on Monday, Justin Tuck.

Did the Giants overpay Vernon? Sure they did. By a lot. They gave what you might call an A+ contract to a player who isn’t J.J. Watt, Von Miller or Khalil Mack. Of course, ultimately the Giants need more than one sack every four games from Vernon. They are, however, getting more from him than the simple sack total indicates.

White’s thoughts on the whole “sacks vs. pressures” argument are also instructive to our debate over how well Vernon has, or has not, played. Here is what White wrote, again via Twitter:

“Sacks are more important than pressures, period. But if you can't get sacks then obviously pressures are the next best thing because in order to have a pressure that means the pass has to fall incomplete which is always good for the defense. But sacks mean lost yardage and hits on the QB which will always make more of a difference IMO. Its kinda the same as an int vs a PBU. Not exactly because it’s a turnover, but close. As for making the case, sure some teams use it as a crutch but the truth is some teams don’t have a lot of sacks NOR pressures. If you have as many pressures as they Giants have had then its a legit argument.”

Let’s not, judge Vernon based on one unsatisfactory number. The Giants’ defense has been getting better, it’s a big part of the reason why they are 5-3 despite an offense that has yet to find its footing. Vernon has been a big part of that.