Year Two of the Ndamukong Suh era begins Sunday and the questions that weren’t answered last season still linger: Can a defensive tackle make a tangible difference in the won/loss record? And can he do the most important thing being asked of him – make the Dolphins stout against the run after Miami finished 28th in that category last season?
The difficulty with analyzing Suh is that everything is judged through the prism of that $19 million per year contract, which pays him $2.5 million more annually than Houston’s JJ Watt, the defending Defensive Player of the Year.
So where does Suh stand heading into year two? Examining:
• On the field. Pro Football Focus maintains that Suh had his best season last year and instead blames the Dolphins’ poor 2015 run defense on Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips (PFF ranked them the two worst among all qualifying NFL defensive tackles against the run), as well as Cameron Wake, Jelani Jenkins and Kelvin Sheppard (who is now with the Giants).
PFF ranked Suh No. 16 among all interior players against the run, and No. 3 as a pass rusher, noting that he had 60 total pressures and five batted passes.
Sam Monson, who wrote an excellent piece analyzing Suh for PFF, said those 60 pressures are “the highest number of pressures he has generated over a season, but the grade for those pressures was higher than in the past because there was a greater percentage of them coming against legitimate blocks, as opposed to clean-up plays made by other players and finished by Suh.”
But here’s one of several disappointments with Suh, not noted in that PFF piece: He ranked only sixth among defensive tackles in sacks with six, the third-lowest total of his six-year career and below his 8.5 with Detroit the previous year.
Those six sacks were tied for 47th in the league, disappointing considering not only the contract but his 10-sack season as a rookie.
And here’s the other problem: Suh had a league-leading 18 penalties. As Monson noted, that’s more than double any other interior defender and “most of Suh’s penalties were just a careless lack of discipline. Suh has always had an ill-disciplined streak to his game, but we tend to imagine that manifesting itself in violent acts like stomping on opponents or trying to kick them in the gentleman’s region.
“In 2015, though, it was simply refusing to keep himself from jumping offside; 15 of his 18 penalties were either offsides (three times), encroachments (five), or neutral-zone infractions (seven), which all amount to the same thing, and signals a willful refusal to adjust his play over the season.”
And though he faced a lot of double teams, he had three or fewer tackles in nearly half the games (seven).
Several of his front-seven teammates in Detroit saw their statistics rise when playing with Suh, and drop without him, but he didn’t have that impact here, aside from one four sack game from Wake.
None of the linebackers significantly raised their play with Suh, even though several of them said before the season that they expected Suh would have that effect.
No wonder a scout told SI.com last week that Suh is Miami’s most overrated player.
Here’s what that scout said: “Don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the best defensive linemen in football, but with that said, when you are making that much money a year, there are expectations and a standard that is set. For whatever reason, it didn't seem like he met that standard last season. And yeah, sometimes his production doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. It shows up in others making plays: linebackers making plays, or him getting double-teamed and another guy getting the sack.
“Coordinators go with a plan to block Suh, he gets a lot of attention sent his way, and will get doubles on him. Over the course of his career when he had a one-on-one in a single block, he was virtually impossible to block for very long. But this past season was a little different: he didn't play with that same passion, that fire, that unfiltered aggression. I didn’t see it this past year. We’ll see if he can turn the switch on in 2016.”
According to PFF’s Monson, Suh lined up in his customary 3-technique spot on the left side of the line on 708 of his 1,020 snaps (69.4 percent), but he also saw 63 snaps on the edge (6.2 percent) and 198 snaps as an end inside the tackle (18.5 percent), with the remaining snaps being other defensive tackle spots (the right side or nose tackle).
“With his size and quickness, there shouldn’t be any reason why he shouldn’t be successful inside,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “Obviously, he’s a three technique, so he’s going to face a bunch of double teams. It’s our job to free him up, and that’s schematically; that’s weekly. We’re going to be an attack front, so that should benefit him.”
One other thing: When The Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley reported last September that Suh was freelancing at times, not always sticking to his responsibility, the team predictably disputed that. But ESPN’s Jeff Darlington (then at NFL Network) reported likewise, and this past offseason, two players on last year’s team said that initial Herald report was accurate.
What’s encouraging is that Adam Gase and Joseph, based on what we’ve heard from players, should be able to relate to Suh better than Joe Philbin and Kevin Coyle ever could. Joseph has earned Suh’s respect; Dolphins people said Coyle never got that.
And Suh said the Dolphins will play a defense that fits him better: an attacking, Wide 9 system.
“I played with one of best tackles to play in Tim Bowens,” former Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. “He made our job easier. It's a combination of linebacker play and finding a scheme that works well with Suh. I didn't like the scheme fit with him last season. Suh played fine and he'll be more comfortable now.”
But Taylor said don’t count on any defensive system lessening the number of double-teams against Suh: “Good luck with that. They're going to find No. 93, but you can still make plays. No matter how much you're being schemed against, if you're an elite talent like he is, you'll find ways to make plays.”
• Off the field: There has been clear improvement here, with Suh making an admirable effort to ingratiate himself to teammates, including inviting them to his home for an NBA Finals game.
Last season, one former Dolphins teammate described him as a loner, and we’ve heard words such as distant and unapproachable also used last season. But Suh has made efforts to change that, one player said.
One player said Suh gave a speech late last season saying he would be here for five years and wondered who would be here with him. That part was fine, but the player said some teammates were taken aback when he mentioned only two players (Reshad Jones, Sheppard) with the inference that those were the only two who had proven worthy, whether he intended it that way or not.
Let’s be clear: Suh is not loathed by teammates. And this offseason he showed growth as a teammate, earning some respect.
Though his interaction with the media is generally unimportant, his combative relationship with several reporters last season and his penchant for saying “next question” to queries he didn’t like made it unnecessarily difficult for the team’s first-rate media relations staff. But Suh has been pleasant and non-confrontational with reporters in recent months.
Those off-field issues don’t make much difference. But this does: Can he be a genuine difference-maker?
As Monson noted, though “Suh was one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL…. he won’t be worth the contract the Miami Dolphins signed him to, at least for a couple of years until the salary cap and market move upward enough that it isn’t the outlier that it currently is.
“Strictly from a value perspective,” Monson added, “Ndamukong Suh might never provide a full return on the contract the Dolphins gave him.”
• For lots of chatter notes from today’s Sunday buzz column -- including some encouraging news on Chris Bosh, Jimmy Johnson’s Dolphins prediction, the Marlins’ conundrum with Jay Ajayi, multiple Marlins dismissals and why UM is very concerned about Appalachian State, please click here. And please follow me on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz).