There’s a young defensive end primed for a breakout season with the Dolphins, and he wasn’t the No. 3 overall pick in April’s NFL draft.
Olivier Vernon, a former University of Miami star who was drafted in the third round last year and showed flashes of promise as a rookie for the Dolphins, has received rave reviews from teammates and coaches while working with the first-team defensive line in the offseason and training camp.
Even in limited action last year as a third-down specialist, Vernon was graded 34th out of the NFL’s 62 defensive ends to play in a 4-3 scheme in Pro Football Focus’ advanced player statistics. Miami’s right defensive end, Cameron Wake, ranked No. 1.
But the Dolphins still traded up in this year’s draft to select another young defensive end, Dion Jordan, with the third overall pick.
Vernon, who is projected as the team’s starting left defensive end with Jared Odrick moving to defensive tackle, said he wasn’t fazed by Miami’s decision to bring in Jordan.
“It adds more depth to the D-line, it boosts up competition on the D-line,” Vernon said. “It feels good, man, knowing we’ve got more people who can pass rush.”
While Jordan is recovering from an offseason injury and the team is slowly working him back into action, Vernon suddenly looks like a player who can boost Miami’s already stout defensive line.
“He has the mentality that you want in the defensive end, that 250-pound kind of guy,” Wake said. “You’ve got to go in there and throw your body in there. You’ve got to be that kind of pit bull. … From the day he got there, that’s the way he’s been and he’s been improving ever since.”
Odrick ranked 59th out of 62 defensive ends in Pro Football Focus’ statistics, so the move to bring in a more natural pass rusher at left end isn’t a surprise. Vernon had 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks in limited action last year.
Vernon’s path to the NFL was turbulent. He had six sacks as a sophomore at UM but just one as a junior before he was suspended six games for receiving impermissible benefits from booster Nevin Shaprio. He then declared for the 2012 draft and was taken No. 72 overall.
Vernon believes he was ready for a breakout season as a junior at UM and would have been drafted higher if it weren’t for the suspension. But for a kid who grew up near Sun Life Stadium and starred at Hialeah High, the opportunity to start at defensive end for the Dolphins could make the turmoil worth it.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Vernon said. “If (the suspension) didn’t happen I probably wouldn’t even be here. I try to look at everything optimistically and try to just maximize my opportunity here.”
Coach Joe Philbin said Vernon has “good get-off on the football.”
“He’s getting off on the snap counter very, very well,” Philbin said. “He’s got good leverage, and he’s displayed that on a consistent basis. I was (observing) the one-on-one pass rush (drill), and he hit a nice spin move. He’s doing some good things.”
Former UM star defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next week, said Vernon brings “a hunger” to the field.
“When you’re hungry and what happened to him at UM and they took him off the field, this is his chance,” Sapp said. “There’s nothing in front of him except what he wants to make. He has a blank camp. I told him, ‘Get you some bold paint and let’s make a masterpiece.’ ”
No matter how much praise Vernon receives this training camp, he said he’s still trying to prove himself.
“If you’re hungry out here, that’s how you eat,” Vernon said. “I just try to stay hungry, just try to stay humble and try to get it every day.”