On first glance at some of the reactions to Ndamukong Suh’s first year as a Miami Dolphin, you would think he had one of the worst seasons of his career, rather than the best.
Often a player’s narrative is dictated by factors other than his on-field performance, and that is exactly the case for Suh, who signed a blockbuster, market-jumping contract a year ago during free agency before taking his talents to South Beach.
There are really two things worth evaluating here: Suh’s level of play in abstract terms, and his production in the context of the contract he signed. He may never be able to justify the value of the deal Miami threw his way, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t playing very well.
Suh earned a place on the PFF Top 101 at No. 27 overall, just two spots lower than a year ago, despite the narrative that he had the worst performance of his career in his first season as a Dolphin.
In each of his six seasons in the NFL, Suh has earned a positive pass-rushing grade. He has always been able to penetrate and get after the passer, but for the first couple of seasons, that came at the expense of playing the run. He would shoot gaps and take himself completely out of the play, leading to negative grades in run defense in each of his first three seasons. At times it seemed like all you needed to run against Detroit was a trap-block, and you would render Suh inert against the rushing attack. Since then, however, he has steadily improved that aspect of his game and bettered his grade from the previous season in each of his last three campaigns.
In 2015, he ranked No. 16 among all interior players against the run, to go along with his No.3 ranking as a pass-rusher, trailing only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.
Suh accumulated 60 total pressures and five batted passes as a pass-rusher while also playing the most snaps of his career, surpassing 1,000 for the first time. It isn’t 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.
This season he was actively affecting the opposing quarterback more than he has at any point in the past, and did it while continuing his improvement against the run. The only real negative to his season was a ridiculous 18 penalties, double the next-highest figure among interior defenders. 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.
Even if we say that these penalties are all a manifestation of selling out to jump the snap in order to get in the backfield sooner, and apply that negative to his pass-rush or overall grades, he still ends up with the best season of his career from a grading standpoint.
That brings us to the context of his contract. Suh can play the best football of his career for the rest of this deal and may still never come close to justifying the price tag. He averages almost $2 million a year more than the next-highest-paid defensive lineman, Malik Jackson, who signed his deal a year later and should have inflation and an ever-rising cap on his side. Watt, who signed a new deal just before the 2014 season, averages nearly $2.5 million per season less than Suh, has less total money in the contract, and a lower percentage of guaranteed dollars.
Watt is a generationally-great player—one of the best to ever play the game—with a legitimate shot to take the mantle of the single-best D-lineman ever to step on an NFL field when all is said and done. If any player deserves to be the best-paid at the position, it’s him.
The fact that Suh’s contract shines over Watt’s by so much means he will naturally be seen as providing poor value for money. Increase the compensation a player receives, and expectations of that player rise accordingly, naturally. If a quarterback doubles his production while his salary increases fivefold, the return on investment is down even if the quarterback himself has become a better player.
Miami did its best to try and maximize Suh’s impact, and his first season there saw him move around the defensive line far more than in the past. He lined up in his customary 3-tech 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).
In essence, Suh the football player is doing nearly everything he can to be the best player he can be. He has improved his run defense, is rushing the passer as well as he ever has before, and is doing so from more positions along the defensive front in roles never before asked of him. If he could improve his discipline and avoid jumping offside so often, he would be pretty close to maximizing his sizable potential. The issue is that, even at that high level, Suh just 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 moves upward enough that it isn’t the outlier that it currently is.
Strictly from a value perspective, Ndamukong Suh might never provide a full return on the contract the Dolphins gave him. But absent that, it would be unfair to use that to suggest he has not provided great play to the team. In 2015, Suh was one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, producing his best single-season body of work as a pro.