Cameron Wake: From Overlooked CFL Star to Overlooked NFL Star

Cameron Wake has come a long way…a very long way.

If you consider the careers of some of the more celebrated pass rushers in the NFL over the past few seasons, you can come up with some very interesting statistics about sack percentage. When you look at Demarcus Ware, James Harrison, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Terrell Suggs, Jared Allen and John Abraham, the results aren’t that surprising.

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To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Demarcus Ware leads the way averaging .874 sacks per start throughout his career. Jared Allen following in second shouldn’t shock anyone either, while John Abraham’s third place finish speaks volumes to how he has carried the Atlanta Falcons’ pass-rush throughout his career. Dwight Freeney may be fourth, but his .757 rating is excellent and within touching distance of the top three elite pass-rushers. This list may frown on the play of James Harrison, Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs, but those edge-rushers are very well-rounded players who have taken over games on their own at times throughout their careers.

It is undoubtedly an impressive list, but much like any potential canton bust of Tom Brady that doesn’t include his flowing locks, it is missing something up top.

That something is Cameron Wake:

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It must be noted that Wake has started fewer games than every other player on the list and has also significantly more appearances that weren’t starts under his belt, but his production is nonetheless very impressive.

After being selected in the non-existent eighth round of the 2005 NFL draft(undrafted for those of you not in the know), Wake, then a linebacker, found his way onto the New York Giants’ off-season roster, but was cut before training camp even began. At 23 years of age, he couldn’t find an opportunity in the NFL, so instead found a regular day job just like the rest of us. For the next two seasons, Wake worked at Castle Point and interned as a gym instructor. He never gave up on his dream however, and he eventually got back on the path towards the NFL.

Most dreaded that journey north of the border to the Canadian Football League, but Wake was fortunate to earn an opportunity with the B.C. Lions. The CFL is where most NFL dreams go to die. Your Brandon Browners and Andrew Hawkins of the world hadn’t made the transition yet, the biggest name in the NFL to come from the Canadian League in recent times was Lawrence Tynes, a kicker. Even now, since Wake has made the transition, the players who find any role in the NFL after playing in the CFL are few and far between.

It wasn’t just the CFL stigma squashing Wake’s odds at this point though. Once he arrived in Canada, he was to undergo a position change, another transition that most players dread.

If Wake dreaded that change to defensive end, it definitely didn’t show in his play. In 2007, he became the first player to ever win the CFL’s rookie of the year and defensive player of the year awards. In 2008, he wasn’t a rookie of the year, but he was the defensive player of the year again with an unfathomable 23 sacks. Twenty-three sacks that would perk the interest from a handful of NFL teams who were hoping to acquire his services.

Wake signed a contract for relatively very little money, but from that point onwards he wouldn’t just carve out a career in the NFL, he’d become one of the very best players in a league that had not too long before rejected him.

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Wake’s Overall Results

Wake is a mainstay of the Dolphins’ defense and they used him as such. Only Jared Odrick spent more time on the field than him last season out of all the team’s defensive lineman. Odrick played 951 snaps, while Wake saw the field 936 times. That number is good enough for 81.7 percent of his defense’s total snaps, while he rushed the passer 558 times, or in other words, 60 percent of the time he was on the field.

Every single one of Wake’s sacks came when he was lined up as a defensive end on the left side of the front. At times the Dolphins’ defense wouldn’t have a standard four man defensive line, but Wake’s position on the field really didn’t change regardless.

He never beat a double-team for a sack and was never involved in a stunt with another defensive lineman. On four of his sacks he didn’t beat a blocker, but two of those were results of blown assignments that gave him a free path to the quarterback. The other two were a result of Kevin Kolb’s poor pocket presence and Andy Dalton holding the ball.

Only three times did Wake sack the quarterback while the Dolphins were playing from behind, twice against the New England Patriots and once against the Buffalo Bills. Five more times he sacked the quarterabck when the teams were level, three of those coming against the San Francisco 49ers. While nine of his sacks came when the Dolphins were playing with a lead, only two of those occasions were when the opposition led by more than a touchdown. Wake had his fewest sacks in the fourth quarters of games, three, with his most coming in the second quarter, six, and four each in quarters one and three.

Considering his skill-set and where he lined up on the field, it’s no surprise that all of Wake’s penetration for his sacks came on either the inside or outside of the right tackle. He beat the right tackle outside 13 times and inside on four occasions. That refers to the area of the field rather than position though, because he once beat a tight end and on other occasions he got to the quarterback unopposed in those areas. Only once did Wake sack the quarterback outside of the pocket and that was on the occasion when he didn’t beat a block against the Bengals.

An astonishing 10 sacks came on third down, with the average distance to the line of scrimmage on those plays being seven yards exactly. Only once did he take advantage of third and long(10+) when he finished a third and 19 against the Arizona Cardinals. Of the seven remaining plays, four came on second down when the line of scrimmage was always at least 10 yards away from the first down marker and three others came on first and 10.

Method Analysis

Timestamp Players
Beaten
Speed
Rush
Bull
Rush
Combination Other Specific Move
ARI, Q1 10:54 Bobby Massie Yes No No Dip
ARI, Q2 10:23 Bobby Massie Yes No No No
ARI, Q2 06:27 Bobby Massie Yes No No No
ARI, Q4 13:31 Bobby Massie Yes No No No
ARI, Q4 02:20 None No No No No
CIN, Q2 06:23 Jermaine Gresham No Yes No No
CIN, Q4 11:09 None No No No No
STL, Q1 12:59 Barry Richardson No No No Spin
NYJ, Q2 06:22 Austin Howard Yes No No No
IND, Q3 10:16 Dwayne Allen Yes No No No
BUF, Q3 05:37 None No No No No
NE, Q3 10:56 Sebastien Vollmer Yes No No No
NE, Q2 07:54 Sebastien Vollmer No No No Inside step
SF, Q1 13:08 Anthony Davis No No No Inside step
SF, Q1 07:36 Anthony Davis No No No Rip
SF, Q2 01:02 None No No No No
BUF, Q3 05:43 Sam Young Yes No No No

At the very least, all that time in Canada taught Wake how to expertly and repeatedly beat up on weaker offensive tackles. Arizona Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie caught Wake on a really bad day when their two teams faced off during Week 4 of the regular season. Wake hadn’t registered a sack during his first three games of the season against the Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. Three weeks of pent up frustration may have played a role in his four sack performance(3.5 official) but a bigger role was his speed.

He did dip under Massie’s block attempt for his first sack, but every other play was very similar to the other as Massie wasn’t just playing catch up from the snap, he was left behind completely at the snap.

Wake Yellow Lines

Wake’s jump off the line is highlighted here. Rarely will you ever beat an offensive tackle so badly at the start of the play that he is forced to completely abandon the first step of his drop back, but that is exactly what happened to Massie here. Massie probably didn’t handle the situation as well as he could have from that point, but it really didn’t matter because Wake was so fast.

The yellow lines above show how fast Wake was off the line in comparison to the pass rusher on the other side of the formation, while the pink lines in the second image show off the difference between Massie’s initial stance and D’Anthony Batiste’s on the other side of the formation.

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Combining his speed to the quarterback after his initial burst off of the line of scrimmage makes this an easy sack for Wake, while Massie is not only out of position to try and protect his quarterback, there is a much too large gap between him and his assignment.

While it’s not always so effective as it was against Massie, Wake primarily relies on his speed rush to get to the quarterback, that doesn’t mean that he is Jerry Hughes though(sorry Colts fans). He has enough diversity in his game to beat blockers in a variety of ways.

Wake jump v Vollmer

Against Sebastien Vollmer, a resident at the opposite end of the right tackle spectrum compared to Bobby Massie, Wake didn’t get any real advantage with his jump off the snap. Vollmer was smart enough not to abandon his drop back and trusted his quickness to get him in position. At the point when Wake has and Vollmer engage each other four yards off the line of scrimmage, Vollmer is in an excellent position to contain him and keep him away from his quarterback.

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Wake and Vollmer battle with each other as Wake tries to push him back into the pocket with his bull-rush. Vollmer is too strong however, so Wake begins to angle himself past Vollmer’s furthest shoulder from the line of scrimmage because he can see Tom Brady in a deep drop. Brady’s pocket presence allows him to step up into the pocket, bringing Vollmer back into a good position to block Wake. However, Wake gets back inside of Vollmer and has a clear lane to the quarterback.

In the above images it looks like Vollmer simply lost control of himself and Wake had a better sight on where the quarterback was so he could avoid him to penetrate the pocket. However, the different angles give us the full story.

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The all-22 angle shows us how Wake used his arms and agility to rip back inside of Vollmer before maintaining control his direction while falling to the ground. Vollmer didn’t just get flustered because of the adjustment, a slight move from Wake turned his momentum against him and took him out of the play.

A slight, but very effective move.

This inside step and technique is something that Wake can do brilliantly at times. He used similar actions against Anthony Davis also during last season. Against the best pass protectors in the league, something that both Vollmer and Davis are, you have to have this variety to your game because you won’t be able to simply outrun or overpower them. Wake didn’t beat many top tackles, but those two stood out.

Name Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Bobby Massie 707 13 -16.9
Jermaine Gresham 118 3 -1
Barry Richardson 630 7 0.3
Austin Howard 591 10 -5.1
Dwayne Allen 134 1 3.3
Sebastien Vollmer 756 7 15.7
Anthony Davis 640 9 7.5
Sam Young 191 1 4.3
Total 3767 51 8.1
Average 470.88 6.38 1.01

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

Although he didn’t consistently take on and beat the best offensive linemen in the game, the reality is that nobody does. Every team doesn’t have top offensive linemen, that’s why the positions are often so valued come draft time, so for Wake to get the better of two of the best in the league not once, but twice each, that is a very impressive achievement.

Timestamp Players
Beaten
Attacks
Football
Time
Elapsed
Yards
ARI, Q1 10:54 Bobby Massie No 2.5 7
ARI, Q2 10:23 Bobby Massie No 2.3 7
ARI, Q2 06:27 Bobby Massie No 3.2 9
AR, Q4 13:31 Bobby Massie No 2.8 6
ARI, Q4 02:20 None No 3.2 3
CIN, Q2 06:23 Jermaine Gresham No 3.5 3
CIN, Q4 11:09 None No 3.9 7
STL, Q1 12:59 Barry Richardson No 3.3 4
NYJ, Q2 06:22 Austin Howard No 2.3 7
IND, Q3 10:16 Dwayne Allen Yes 3.8 4
BUF, Q3 05:37 None No 2.4 3
NE, Q3 10:56 Sebastien Vollmer No 2.8 6
NE, Q2 07:54 Sebastien Vollmer No 2.9 7
SF, Q1 13:08 Anthony Davis Yes 4.2 4
SF, Q1 07:36 Anthony Davis Yes 3.1 4
SF, Q2 01:02 None No 2.7 6
BUF, Q3 05:43 Sam Young Yes 2.2 6
Total 13 4 51.1 93
Average .765 .235 3.01 5.47

Wake didn’t just beat offensive linemen though. He was also very quick to get to the quarterback, averaging just over three seconds per sack. That is no real surprise, because he was so reliant on his speed rush that he was able to get to the quarterback in as short a time as 2.2, 2.7, 2.4, 2.5, 2.3, 2.3, 2.9 and 2.8 seconds on separate occasions.

When he had the opportunity to also, Wake went for the football. Often times the quarterback would protect himself as the defender closed in on him, but when he was caught unaware, Wake would have the awareness to try and force the fumble.

Overwhelming Burst

Wake jump
It really can’t be overstated just how fast Wake is. It’s easy to show off his speed at the snap because of the difference in depth of the players involved, but don’t be fooled into thinking that that is only where his speed becomes effective.

He repeatedly gets past defenders by simply running an arc around them to get into a position where he can then accelerate and strike towards the quarterback in the pocket. Once he has that play established, Wake is also able to watch the offensive tackle as he is moving down the field to take advantage of any missteps in their drop. If a tackle overcommits to his speed rush, then he will quickly shift back inside as he did in the play against Vollmer detailed previously.

That’s not all that Wake can do to counter tackles who overplay the speed rush though.

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Against the Rams, Wake was lined up across from Barry Richardson, a less than stellar tackle. Richardson doesn’t have the physical tools to handle Wake’s speed on a consistent basis, but he plays the speed rush almost perfectly here.

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Richardson is in perfect position when Wake gets to the same depth as the quarterback. From here he should be able to easily push Wake down the field and out of danger from the Rams’ point of view. He has his feet set and his body is in an upright position, once he latches his hands on to guide Wake downfield, his momentum should do all of the hard work for him.

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Richardson doesn’t actually play this overly poorly. He is in good position and hasn’t overcommitted to the speed-rush like so many do when they are beaten inside. Wake simply is too quick in his spin move for Richardson to readjust and get back between he and his quarterback. Unlike Wake, Richardson can’t reverse his momentum that drags him further downfield, away from the football.

Verdict

Because of his journey to the NFL and because the Dolphins haven’t been anything close to a power-house since he signed there, Wake is still somewhat overlooked in today’s league. It’s very easy to be distracted by the young, superstar names who have taken over this league. Even though those players deserve all the plaudits that they get and they should be the focus of the league, that doesn’t mean that we should just disregard a veteran who has worked on his craft to become a real difference-maker.

Wake is a difference-maker, we just don’t consider him one nationally now because he doesn’t play for a team that is in the playoffs every single season. Without him, the defense would be significantly worse at all levels. Outside of his sacks, Wake had 23 hits and 46 hurries during last season. Combine that with his stout play against the run and he is clearly one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.

There isn’t a team in the league that would turn him away today. Not only could everyone use a Cameron Wake, everyone is frantically searching for the next pass-rusher or any kind of impact performer that they can find in the Canadian Football League.

Should the Dolphins reach their potential this coming season, Wake will be one of the players who benefits most from their team success. At 31 years of age, he still isn’t getting the respect he deserves from the national media and it’s unlikely that a player of his style will be able to be effective into his mid or late thirties.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf