Olivier Vernon is a few seasons removed from his best play, but he has still been one of the better pass rushers in the league over the past couple of years. He graded out at 74.6 last season to go with 51 pressures, according to PFF. But unfortunately, an Achilles injury in Week 17 ended his season. That should create an intriguing market for the former Miami Hurricane this offseason, and it may allow a team like the Falcons to find excellent value.
First, the timing of this injury couldn’t be worse for Vernon. He suffered his Achillies tear on January 4th, just two and a half months before free agency. It’s clear the 2021 season will mostly be a recovery year for the veteran, as an Achilles’ injury can mean 9-12 months on the sidelines. The optimistic side of that timeline (9 months) means that Vernon could be ready to play somewhere in late-September. Or, the pessimistic side could have him ready sometime in December.
Thinking optimistically, Vernon could return around the fourth week — going off the 2020 schedule — which isn’t unrealistic with the way athletes are bouncing back from once career-ending injuries thanks to modern medicine. It could work out all right for him if he can get back on the field towards the middle of the year, show he has no lingering issues from the injury, and hit free agency again.
This is what will likely happen: Vernon will sign with a playoff-caliber team in October. The Falcons will have to get off to a fast start and win some significant games to convince him that Atlanta is a good enough landing spot to increase his free-agent value for the 2022 offseason.
As far as the Falcons are concerned, Vernon offers as much against the run as he does the pass. He could be a rotational edge rusher that provides valuable veteran leadership, which is crucial for a team that will surely draft a couple of edge prospects. Those young pass rushers will be able to learn while getting to see the field more than they would if someone of Vernon’s caliber was fully healthy.
Ideally, Vernon comes to Atlanta and imparts his wisdom on the younger pass rushers, including Dante Fowler. He proceeds to stay healthy and shows no signs of the injury hampering his ability, giving the defense’s pass rush a boost. It’s not about how a team plays in September and October but how they finish in December and January… when Vernon will likely be fully healthy. The one-year relationship would, again in an ideal world, continue into the playoffs, and Vernon’s value in 2022 free agency would return to what it should’ve been this offseason. All the while, Atlanta’s young pass rushers take a leap from their rookie to sophomore years, thanks to Vernon, which allows Fontenot to let the veteran walk.
Photographer: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire