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What are the Titans getting in free agent pass rusher Cameron Wake?

The veteran pass rusher still has some juice at age 37.

Oakland Raiders v Miami Dolphins Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

The Titans agreed to terms on a three year, $23M deal with long time Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake on Tuesday per Adam Schefter.

At 37 years old Wake is certainly on the downslope of his NFL career, but he’s aging quite gracefully, picking up 6 sacks on just 286 pass rush snaps. Compare that to the Titans veteran duo of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan who combined for just 2 sacks on 559 pass rush snaps last season and you can see that it’s a pretty clear upgrade for Tennessee.

Wake wasn’t just better at getting after the passer than the Titans edge rushers though. He was more effective than most of his colleagues across the entire league, checking in at second in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric for edge rushers with at least 121 pass rush snaps in 2018. He generated 10 QB hits and 38 pressures to go along with his 6 sacks, disturbing the quarterback on nearly 19% of his pass rush attempts. That’s just a ridiculous rate for a pass rusher of any age. Wake is no stranger to the top of PFF’s pass rushing metric either. The last time Wake finished outside the top 10 in this metric was 2011 when he slacked off to 13th.

So yes, Wake has had a lot of birthdays, but he’s still yet to put a product on the field that would make you think he’s washed. The Dolphins reduced his snap count in 2018, choosing to use him as more of a situational pass rusher than an every down defensive end. He played 47.5% of Miami’s defensive snaps among a heavily rotated defensive line group where no player saw more than 61.9% of snaps.

I would expect the Titans to take a similar approach, letting other outside linebackers do the heavy lifting on run downs while they save Wake for third downs and other passing situations. Some will get caught up with the idea of paying that much money to a player who doesn’t “start”, but that’s a backwards way of thinking about things in 2019. The Titans are paying for Wake’s ability to influence the most important down and the most important phase of the game and he’s still really good at that. Who gets their name on the screen on the first play of the game is mere window dressing.

Wake’s story is one of the best in the NFL. After going undrafted out of Penn State in 2005 — despite some ridiculous workout numbers including a completely ridiculous 45.5” vertical at the combine and a 4.55-second 40-yard dash at Penn State’s pro day — he got a brief look with the Giants in training camp, but was quickly released. He continued working out, but took a job as a mortgage broker to pay the bills while he waited for a call from the NFL. That call didn’t come, but an opportunity in the CFL did and he jumped on it. Wake was an instant hit for the British Columbia Lions, totaling 16 sacks in his first season and winning CFL Rookie of the Year honors and then following it up with a 23 sack season in year two.

That got the NFL interested and he chose the Dolphins out of several offers. Entering the league as a 27-year old, Wake picked up 5.5 sacks as a rotational pass rusher in 2009 before blowing up with 14 sacks and his first of five Pro Bowl nods in 2010. Wake now sits tied for second in career sacks among active players at 98 alongside Von Miller behind Terrell Suggs’ 132.5.

The start to his career still sits as an oversized chip on his shoulder, driving his maniacal work ethic. Wake’s obsession with being the best is unique. He’s notoriously strict about diet, completely avoiding alcohol and junk food as he explained in this interview with Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post last year.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said this week. “I’ve decided many years ago that this is going to be my life if I want to be successful. To me, every week off that I’m taking is a week that some other guy is not, or a week that I’m stepping back or a sack that I’m going to miss or a play that I’m not going to get. It all comes down to what it’s worth. If I told a rookie, ‘Listen, if you never drink a drink of alcohol throughout your entire career, you’ll have 15 more sacks for the years you’re playing. Is that worth it to you?’ Some guys say yes; some guys say no. ‘Never have fried food for your 10 years and you’ll make X more money.’ Some guys say yes, some guys say no. To me, even if it’s one sack, one play, it’s worth it. Because 10 years from now when I’m not playing, I can have all the cheeseburgers, all the beaches, all the everything, because I put the time in now to put myself in a position that I can have all those things. But if you try to do it the other way around, you won’t be in that position to even enjoy the stuff that you’re working towards… It’s 24/7. It’s just a lifestyle. It’s my life and it won’t change until I stop playing.”

There is zero doubt that lifestyle helps explain why, at age 37, Wake is still harassing quarterbacks at the highest level of football. He won the Dolphins team leadership award in 2017 and now comes to a locker room with some promising young pass rushers in Harold Landry and Sharif Finch that could use some guidance. All indications from his first year on the team indicate that Landry will be hungry to pick up anything he can from Wake.

I think that sounds like two guys that are going to be on the same page.

However, the Titans didn’t just sign Wake to be a glorified, uniform-wearing coach. They signed him to hunt quarterbacks. So let’s take a look at how Wake has been successful doing just that in recent seasons.

First, Wake loves rushing from the wide-9 technique on third downs, a technique most Titans fans will remember from the Jim Schwartz/Jim Washburn days. He uses it to get a running start at tackles and give himself a two-way-go. Here, the Raiders right tackle fails to set deep enough and Wake is able to explode right through his outside shoulder to flatten his arc and put a huge hit on Derek Carr. You can see the burst is still there as he accelerates through contact.

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There is nothing normal about Wake as a 37 year old player, including his flexibility. Here you can get a great glimpse of his ability to bend the edge as he beats the right tackle to sack our old friend Blake Bortles. The ability to bend like this is rare for a 23 year old and virtually unheard of for a 37 year old.

(Shout out to Leonard Fournette for the half-hearted attempt at a chip, keep killing it bro)

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Wake got home against Andrew Luck in 2018 as well, something that players in Titans uniforms have been struggling to do for years. Similar to the previous clip, Wake just uses speed and hand placement to soften the edge against Braden Smith before finishing by getting his free hand on the ball to knock it out. Watch his right (inside) hand closely. He slips it right onto Smith’s chest plate near his outside shoulder which allows Wake to effectively take away any power in that outside arm. That leads to Smith being forced to turn his hips and open the gate. The subtleties of pass rushing make a massive difference in effectiveness and Wake understands that as well as anyone.

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Wake has a wide array of pass rush moves, but there are three real go-to moves that he comes back to frequently. The first is just a chop-snatch combo, but before we get to that we need to note the get off here. Wake likes to coil up tight in a four point stance, looking as much like a sprinter as an edge rusher. That allows him to explode up field, using the same explosive traits that showed in that 45.5-inch vertical and put the tackle in a spot where he has no choice but to open up. Here, Jets right tackle Brandon Shell knows he’s beat off the jump and opens up the barn door for Wake almost immediately.

Now let’s take a look at the move itself. Watch his inside hand carefully first. Wake uses that hand to chop Shell’s hands down and get rid of his punch. Now watch the outside hand. Right after chopping Shell’s hands down with his inside hand Wake uses his outside hand to snatch the back of his opponent’s shoulder pads and yank down, pulling Shell off balance and leaving him on the ground as Wake finishes with the sack. Now check out the feet because all of this goes together. He uses what I call a “gallop step” to turn his hips towards the quarterback as he’s reaching for the back of the jersey. As soon as his outside foot hits the ground from that gallop, he’s exploding through directly at his target. Its a lot of moving parts, but there is a method to all of it.

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Here it is again from that same game, similar result.

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The second move is just a pure speed rush. Just take a look at this get off and closing speed and tell me this guy can’t still make a difference for an NFL team. The right tackle has zero chance and like we’ve seen in other examples, is forced to open up his hips almost immediately. Once he does that, he’s toast. Wake just runs right through his outside shoulder on the way to the QB.

Wake didn’t get credit for this sack (the NFL credited it to Andre Branch who can be found on the ground near Kessler’s feet). In fact, there were at least three sacks in the six games that I watched of Wake that were either not registered to him or negated via penalties on other players. The sacks that he did get credited for were high quality sacks too, not clean ups after pressures by other players or long developing coverage sacks. Wake could have easily had a third straight double digit sack season with a few more snaps or a little more luck.

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That brings me to his final go-to move. When a tackle does manage to set deep enough to take away the speed rush or the chop-snatch, Wake will convert speed to power and bull rush. He rocks the tackle back here and likely gets a sack here if his teammate doesn’t step on his foot as he’s trying to break away.

NFL Game Pass

Wake obviously isn’t going to do this forever. Eventually Father Time is going to catch up to him and turn him back into a mere mortal. However, that hasn’t happened just yet. If the Titans can manage his snaps and save him for third downs and other obvious passing situations, he can still be a game changing type talent.

With Cameron Wake on one side and Harold Landry on the other, Titans opponents better have a couple tackles that can really move (or be prepared to max protect and chip all day). There is certainly still some work to do in the pass rush though. I would imagine that Jon Robinson will be looking to add a pass rusher either on the edge or defensive line pretty early in the draft to bolster the rotation and give themselves a successor to Wake that can develop while the veteran is still playing at a high level.