Before signing with the Miami Dolphins, Branden Albert didn't know much about Olivier Vernon.
But it hasn't taken long for the third-year defensive end to earn the respect of Albert, a veteran Pro Bowl left tackle who joined the Dolphins in March and now lines up against Vernon in practice.
"I just knew when I came in that he had a lot of sacks, but I didn't know what type of player he was until the first couple of days of practice," Albert said of Vernon.
"I said 'I'm going to have my hands full during OTAs and training camp.' He's a hard worker, he's a hell of an athlete, a hell of a defensive end. I think he's going to be a special player. He's already a special player. I think he's going to make some noise."
It's hard to fault Albert, or anyone outside South Florida, for not knowing what Vernon can do.
Before registering 11.5 sacks last year in a surprising breakout season, Vernon was a young player trying to make the transition from the University of Miami to the NFL.
In 2012, his first year in the league, the third-round draft pick had 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Vernon more than tripled his sack production last season and nearly doubled his number of tackles.
Now he finds himself competing for more time on one of the Dolphins' more productive units — a defensive line that features the likes of Cameron Wake and Dion Jordan, who is suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the league's policy on performance enhancing substances.
Now the Dolphins want to see if Vernon's numbers will hold steady or improve. Both coach Joe Philbin and defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers say they're looking for consistency from Vernon, especially when it comes to the run game.
But so far in camp, his effort hasn't gone unnoticed.
"You love the development from year one to year two," Philbin said.
"There is certainly still room for continued growth in year three, and it may not always be in the numbers. Those are sometimes deceiving, just to look at the numbers. Again, some of the most impressive plays when we watch the cutups of OV were the hustle plays, the effort plays. Sometimes, they go unnoticed at times. Then when you really look at the season as a whole and you look at his production, it's impressive."
Added Rodgers: "He went from being a role player his rookie year, getting three and a half sacks. The next year he got 11-and-a-half sacks. We've got to be consistent. We can't go back to three sacks. We've got to see if he's a legit defensive end, and that's eight to 10 sacks or better. That's a legit NFL right defensive end."
Vernon is confident he can answer his coaches' challenge.
Like many former Hurricanes, he returned to Coral Gables this offseason to train with Andreu Swasey, Miami's longtime strength and conditioning coach. He's done his best to adapt in practice to the up-tempo offense being installed by new Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. And he's tried to learn from the veterans around him, including Albert.
Vernon is hopeful all of that will help him produce during a season in which he likely won't catch many offensive coordinators by surprise anymore. A productive season could also lead to a more lucrative contract, since Vernon is eligible to renegotiate his rookie contract during the next offseason.
"I guess I came out of nowhere [last season]," Vernon laughed.
"I wasn't on the radar at all, so one thing about me is I just had to earn respect, and I still have to earn respect every time I get out there on the field. … [It's going to be a matter of] just going back to what I was doing before, fundamentals, just staying on the grind, staying motivated and having something to play for."
Staff writer Omar Kelly contributed to this report.
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