Ndamukong Suh Makes the Miami Dolphins Better, But At What Cost?
On the surface, it’s hard to argue with an NFLer who decides to move from Detroit to Miami. The weather is nicer, there's no state income tax and, in today's NFL, there's no more having to play Aaron Rodgers twice a year.
The official start of free agency isn't 4:00 PM on Tuesday, but “official” doesn’t really mean much around this time of year. About two hours into the NFL’s “legal tampering” period, when teams can start negotiating with other players, it was announced Suh to the Dolphins was a done deal. Or, at least, done as a deal could be before it's “official.”
Suh is reported to have received a six-year, $114 million contract from Miami, which will pay him an average of $19 million per season through 2020. That’s quarterback money. Actually, that’s really good quarterback money. Suh’s market was already skewed by his rookie deal, a relic from the last year of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the last year of his rookie deal, Suh had a base salary of $12.5 million and a cap hit of $22.4 million. It’s hard to ask a player in his prime to take a massive pay cut from his previous salary, even if his previous salary was outrageous in the first place. This contract now makes Suh one of the highest paid players in the entire league.
The year-to-year breakdown of contracts rarely split the average even throughout the entire deal, but average salary is still one of the better ways to get an apples-to-apples comparison before front offices perform salary cap gymnastics to make the details work. Per Spotrac, the $19 million average salary for Suh ranks fifth among all NFL players for the 2015 season. The four players in front of Suh are Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Drew Brees. All four of those quarterbacks finished among the top 10 this past season by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Rodgers, with the highest average salary at $22 million, led the league in Passing NEP and took home a Most Valuable Player Award to go with it.
It’s hard justifying giving any defensive player quarterback-level money, because they don’t have as much impact on the game. What does this all mean for the Dolphins and Suh? Did they overspend?
Bring the Pressure
He might not be at a quarterback’s production level, but let’s not downplay the type of impact Suh can have on the field. Last season’s Lions defensive line was incredible, especially against the run.
By NEP, it was one of the best run defenses we’ve tracked since 2000. With Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle of the line, the Lions had an Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP of -66.85 last season, meaning they prevented roughly 67 points from being scored on them via the ground than they should have. The next best team was Tampa Bay -- along with fellow 2010 draft pick Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle -- at -44.78. The gap between Detroit and Tampa Bay was the same as the gap between the Buccaneers and Houston Texans, who ranked seventh within the metric.
Historically, the Lions' run defense last year was the seventh best since 2000, and the best since the 2007 Minnesota Vikings behind the Williams Wall.
On a per play basis, the Lions were even better. Detroit totaled -0.19 Adjusted Defensive Rush NEP per attempt, .08 better than the second place Baltimore Ravens. That 0.08 margin was also the difference between Baltimore and the teams tied for 12th, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Detroit’s performance on a per play basis ranked behind just the 2000 and 2006 Ravens.
That type of production is what the Dolphins could use in the middle of their defensive line. Granted, all teams could use that type of production along the defensive line, but the lack of run defense kept Miami from being one the best defenses in the league in 2014. Through Week 8, the Dolphins ranked second in Adjusted Defensive NEP while being 16th against the run. The Dolphins finished the season ranked 17th in overall defense and dropped to 21st against the run.
Miami also saw their efficiency against the pass drop through the second half of the season. That also ties to the run defense and a lack of production from the defensive line though. Suh can also be a help there, being one of the rare players who can bring interior pressure on a snap-to-snap basis.
With the signing of Suh, Miami’s depth chart along the defensive line now lists Suh, Cameron Wake, Randy Starks and Olivier Vernon. That’s certainly an impressive amount of talent along the front, but at what cost did that grouping come?
Just to find the cap space to sign Suh, the Dolphins had to cut Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Cortland Finnegan, Nate Garner and Philip Wheeler. Dannell Ellerbe has not yet been released, but is expected to be soon. There is still an unknown around Mike Wallace's status as well.
Most of the contracts were mistakes from the Jeff Ireland era, but that’s a loss of at least five players to bring in one. It could be more. On the field, those cuts might not have much of an immediate impact. Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi led Miami linebackers in defensive snaps during 2014. Hartline saw his role significantly decreased from 2013. Finnegan has long been a hit or miss corner who missed much more during his time in Miami.
The Dolphins will have a future task of filling out the rest of the roster with any type of talent for depth. The specifics of the Suh contract will shine more light on how Miami can approach that, but at this point, it doesn’t appear there will be much additional cap space to work with in 2015. It’s possible the Suh deal is heavily back loaded, but with a looming extension for Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins could be looking at almost $40 million per year tied between two players. That doesn't even take into account the debate of whether Tannehill has earned that extension so far or not. Releasing and restructuring mid-tier players could become common place for this front office over the next few seasons.
Suh clearly makes the Dolphins better right now. There’s no way of denying that -- Miami should rank among the top teams in Adjusted Defensive NEP next year, as they did through the first half of 2014. The key to the overall success of the deal is how the front office can continue to build the rest of the roster. With so much invested into one player on the defensive side of the ball, that could be the hardest battle the Dolphins face over the length of the contract.