Olivier Vernon’s nickname is Smooth.
“Ever seen him walk?” Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell said with a grin.
Said safety Michael Thomas: “You don’t really hear too much from him. You don’t really see a big burst or flash, because everything he does is fluid, and that’s what makes him a good athlete.”
The problem is, for the first month or so of the season, Vernon didn’t live up to that name.
Gimpy? Yes. But certainly not Smooth.
Vernon sprained his ankle after getting leg-whipped in the season opener. And although he didn’t miss a game, Vernon’s game was not the same.
He had just one sack in the season’s first six games — certainly not the start any player wants to have in a contract season.
But in the six games since, he has been as good as anyone in football.
Sure, the Dolphins have changed the way in which they have used the fourth-year pass rusher. But the reason for his improvement isn’t that complicated.
If you can’t run, you can’t sack.
“Football’s football,” Vernon said. “You’re always going to be hurting. Unfortunately, I went down the first game of the season. It’s just about getting back. I like being out there with my teammates. I don’t like missing games, and I ain’t going to miss no games. It’s just fighting through it.”
When asked exactly how injured he was earlier in the year, Vernon responded: “All I know is I wasn’t feeling right. I was not feeling right. But now I’m back to normal.”
That’s bad news for the New York Giants, who visit the Dolphins on Monday night.
But it’s great news for Vernon’s bank account.
He might be the best defensive end in the 2016 free agent class.
And if the Dolphins want to keep him, they will either need to outbid the league (he’s expected to command a multiyear contract with $30 million guaranteed) or slap him with the franchise tag (a one-year deal for around $15 million).
As of Saturday, the two sides weren’t anywhere close to an extension.
But with each passing week, the Dolphins might find it harder and harder to let him walk.
Campbell appreciates when a player like Vernon excels in a contract year, “because he’s handling his business.”
“He’s stepping up and he’s playing good football,” Campbell said. “Of course, I know that’s in the back of his mind, every player it would be when you’re in a contract year, you want to play the best that you could play. ... It’s always good to see a guy who is where he’s at. He really has thrived, and he’s gotten better and better and better. He shows up every day, he puts in the work, and he’s playing really good football right now.”
How good? Pro Football Focus ranks Vernon fifth among all NFL edge rushers, trailing only Khalil Mack, Cameron Jordan, Justin Houston and Von Miller.
He ranks fifth among all NFL defenders with 13 tackles for loss; even after his slow start, he still has 6 1/2 sacks in 2015 and needs just two more for 30 in his career.
For sure, a change in defensive philosophy has helped. Vernon now has more freedom to attack the quarterback with Lou Anarumo in charge; former defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle would ask Vernon to read and react at times, and even drop into coverage.
Neither lends itself to a high sack total.
“[Anarumo is] keeping it simple, not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Vernon said. “I think they’re more utilizing the four-man rush that we have. We have guys on this D-line that can rush, stop the run and rush the passer. I feel like that’s our strong suit.”
▪ The Dolphins have ruled three players out for Monday’s game: tackle Ja’Wuan James (toe), receiver Rishard Matthews (ribs) and tight end Brandon Williams, who broke a bone in his foot Friday and is likely done for the season.
Everyone else should play, including defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who was listed as questionable with a calf injury. Campbell said Mitchell “probably won’t be 100 percent.”