Last season, the Miami Dolphins featured one of the NFL's best defensive lines. Four-time Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh was a force inside; Olivier Vernon was magnificent all-around; and Cameron Wake, despite missing more than half the season because of a torn Achilles, averaged a sack per game during the course of seven regular-season appearances.
Although Suh and Vernon consistently wreaked havoc, Miami's D-line wouldn't have finished among the league's elite if not for the production of Wake's replacement, Derrick Shelby.
With a contract months away from expiring, the 27-year-old made the most of his opportunity, using his uptick in snaps to set career-highs in sacks, hits, hurries, passes defended and stops. He also returned an interception for a touchdown against Baltimore, helping Miami to a 15-13 victory in Week 13.
Overall, he finished with the 10th-highest Pro Football Focus grade among 4-3 defensive ends, even though he started just eight games.
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Shelby's numbers suggest he's ready to have a breakout season. If he does, the Falcons will be the ones who benefit.
Instead of adding a high-priced free agent or investing a top draft pick in another front-seven defender, Atlanta opted to boost its D-line by signing Shelby to a modest four-year deal — one that could quickly become a bargain.
Atlanta improved significantly against the run in 2015, and Shelby should make the team even better in that regard. In 2015, only eight 4-3 defensive ends posted a higher run stop percentage than the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder, and only three earned more cumulative stops.
Additionally, if Dan Quinn and Bryan Cox can hone Shelby's pass-rush skills, he could become one of the team's best defenders on third down. He's already proven he can disrupt the opponent's backfield: In his final five contests with the Dolphins, Shelby registered 10 QB hurries, three QB hits and 1.5 sacks.
Turn more of those hurries and hits into sacks, and Shelby could become one of the shrewdest free agency signings in recent memory — not just for Atlanta, but for the whole league.