Broncography: Von Miller

Von Miller was born on March 26, 1989, to Von Sr. and Gloria Miller. He grew up in Texas, where high school football is a religious experience. Coached by Dave Meadows at DeSoto High School, Miller quickly made his way into the eyes of District 8-5A, who made him their most valuable player as a senior. As a junior in 2005, Miller had 37 tackles, seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss (TFL) and 12 quarterback hurries, but he improved on that as a senior, notching 76 tackles, six sacks and 14 TFL. The TFL, hurries and sacks were something that would become the norm for him in game situations. From high school on, Von showed that he had a knack for getting into the backfield.

Miller decided to stay in-state and attend Texas A&M, carrying a University studies major with concentrations in life sciences and agriculture. He began playing there as a freshman rather than taking a redshirt season. It was a good choice:  Miller was able to post 22 tackles (10 solo), but also had two QB sacks and four TFL. It was enough to gain him being named to the Freshman All-Big 12 team by the Sporting News, partially on the strength of his game against Missouri, where he had five tackles, two of them TFL and one sack.

His early fanfare on limited play worked against him, though - Miller is something of a practical joker, and with his recognition and early fame, he developed a habit of skipping class as well as not producing as well during spring practice. Disgusted, head coach Mike Sherman suspended him for the spring. He went home and told his father the story of the situation, adding that he was thinking of transferring schools. His father didn’t buy it for a moment, telling the younger Von that he’d made a commitment and he was danged well going to keep to it.

Miller Jr. took his father’s response to heart, and when it came time for the fall season, he played in all 12 games and started four of them in the 4-3 defense of coordinator Joe Kines. Miller added 44 tackles with 25 solo and led the team with 3.5 sacks. He had 7.5 TFL, two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered - he showed that he had a nose for the ball. Miller also had four stops on special teams. He gives a lot of credit to Sherman:

Coach Sherman is like a father to me, and he's never, ever lied to me. He always gave me great advice and directed me in the right way. He's been part of every major decision I've had, all the way up from my freshman year.

His sophomore production may not seem all that impressive, but in Miller and Kines' defense, his role was mostly in coverage, something that Denver has been sadly lacking. It limited him, though, and he only achieved eight tackles in the last seven Big 12 games.

But as a junior, Miller really began to shine. He was moved to the ‘jack’ linebacker position and started all 13 games, leading the nation in sacks with 17, adding 19.5 TFL and five passes defended. The ‘jack’ position he played was a hybrid position, and Miller might have his hand in the dirt or play upright on any given down. It led to him being named a finalist for the Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award (top collegiate linebacker). In addition, he garnered a first-team All-America selection by The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated and became the first Aggie since Jason Webster in 1999 to earn first-team All-America accolades. he also received a second-team All-America selection by The Associated Press and the Walter Camp Football Foundation and a third-team pick by Rivals.com as well as becoming a unanimous first-team All-Big 12 honoree.

His senior year saw him in a similar situation. This time his hybrid position under Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense (DeRuyter was Miller’s third DC in 4 years, a factor that cuts both ways. He’s familiar with both fronts and has been productive in all systems: he’s familiar with more approaches than most college linebackers) was named the ‘Joker’, a moniker that fit him well as a person, too. It, too, was a hybrid of DE and OLB, in a 3-4 base front and permitted him to move around the field, finding holes and creating mismatches. But teams were game-planning for him, and as a result his production diminished slightly. He began the season with an ankle injury, and that also slowed him for a few games. Even so, and even with the opponents keying on him, he managed to finish with 68 tackles, 17.5 for loss with 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Kines had compared Miller to the late Chiefs HOF linebacker Derrick Thomas, and Miller got film of Thomas and began to study his game. It seemed to pay off - he received his second first-team All-Big 12 honors and won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. He was also named a consensus first-team All-American.  He also received first-team All-American honors from Walter Camp, Scout.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN.com, and the Associated Press.

Predraft:

Miller has been on the radar for a top 10 spot for a long time, and he’s risen to being one of the top 4 - M. Dareus, N. Fairley, P. Peterson and Miller, in no particular order. They’re all highly talented, extremely athletic players. Here are some of Miller’s strengths and weaknesses, some from draft sites and pundits, some from my own watching.

Weaknesses: Miller is the kind of player who prefers to run around blockers instead of through them. While he’s unusually strong in the upper body, he has a slender lower body, and is currently lacking the strength to anchor and hold up on the line of scrimmage. Because of that, he can be washed out of plays. The ankle injury he had his senior year is the kind of thing that you want to watch for and get him to train to prevent with his slender lower body. He’s very strong in his upper body and uses it well to hit and tackle. He does need weight room and explosion/overspeed work on the lower body.

What I’ve seen of his play recognition wasn’t as strong as it will need to be in the NFL, and he’s going to be spending a lot of time in the film room if he wants to stand out. That’s true of any rookie, though. In great part, that’s due to the nature of his ‘Joker’ hybrid position - he was tasked with seeing the ball and going after it, more than with play recognition and reading keys effectively (which he also did, but in lesser amounts). That doesn’t mean that he can’t develop those skills, only that they weren’t a big part of his job in college (junior/senior year).

He needs to keep his pads low - bend and burst, as they say - and will get washed out if he gets too high. That’s a common problem as players move to the NFL - you can get away with it more in college, but the pros will eat you alive if you’re careless on that.

From Scott Wright at DraftCountdown.com, some weaknesses:

  •  Overall instincts and awareness might be lacking
  •  Can be too aggressive and run himself out of plays
  •  Will struggle when asked to take on massive linemen
  •  An adequate run defender but has room to improve
  •  Questionable hands, ball skills and playmaking ability

Strengths:   Miller was coached by Chan Gailey at the Senior Bowl, and he thrived in the drills that week. I always like a player who loves to practice - it shows that he loves the game itself. Warren Sapp was standing on the side as he watched Miller practicing dropping into coverage. After a particularly impressive rep, Sapp remarked, "You're either born with that, or you're not.” In his opinion, Miller was born with it (Odd note - smaller linebackers were once known as coverage LBs, and still are in some parts of the country at the levels below NFL).

Sapp has a lot of company, and coverage is one of the areas where Denver has needed help from the LBs. He reacts quickly when the ball is thrown to the flat. He attacks the passer as the QB is working through his progression and he also senses weaknesses in an offensive tackle. He usually knows when to go for the ball or big hit to create turnovers, and wraps up well on tackles. His pass rushing uses multiple techniques, which is rare for a college linebacker. His spin moves are good, he understands both the swim and rip moves and has a deceptive jab step that moves the OL players out of their line.

Combine

Miller has a rare first step - extremely fast - and equally good following speed. He ran a 4.5 average in the 40 at Combine with one attempt at 4.42 (Dontay Moch led at 4.40), and Miller clocked in at 4.49 on his Pro Day. He also led the LBs in the Combine in the three-cone drill, the one that displays the player’s quick-twitch ability to cut effectively, maintain balance and show his change-of-direction skills. Miller had a 37-inch vertical, which looks good (it is) until you see that Dontay Moch managed a 42-inch rep. Moch also led the group in the broad jump at 128 inches, but Miller was just behind him at 126 inches. Miller also led all the linebackers with a 4.06 time in the 20-yard shuttle. His Combine was about what you’d expect from the top college LB in the country for this year.

As noted, Miller has several pass-rush moves and his best is an inside spin off an outside jab step. He's surprisingly strong working to the inside and gets good leverage, usually keeping his pads low. Many of his best moves are to the outside, because of his speed. It’s hard - almost impossible - for a TE or RT to keep him contained one on one. The OT has to get his hands on him first to contain him.

Speed

Why is Miller so fast? What is it about his running that creates value to defenses and makes him tough for an offensive line to stop? For openers, he’s got an extremely fast first step. To break it down further, let’s look at his combine numbers for the 40, taken from NFLDraftScout.com:

  • 40-Yard Dash: 4.42
  • 20-Yard Dash: 2.57
  • 10-Yard Dash: 1.57

In his first 10 yards, which he usually covers in seven steps, he gets up to speed. 1.57 is very respectable, but slower guys have run it - which is somewhat unusual, since in pads his first-step explosion is remarkable. He runs the next 10 yards in only one second, much faster, which is essential - after this point, the slower-twitch fibers, endurance fibers, in theory, begin to kick in. Yet he runs the next 20 yards in 1.85 seconds - he’s actually getting faster as he runs farther. Keep in mind, this is in shorts, not equipment. Even so - he’s running at a 0.925 second clip for each of the last two 10-yard segments, on average. That’s very, very fast. He’s likely to be a demon on special teams, in addition to his play at LB. You can see why he’s so tough to stop to the outside, too. Given that his best pass-rushing move is to get the outside lineman moving to stop him outside and then spinning inward, with Miller’s speed it just isn’t fair. He’ll win that race 9 of 10 times. His problems will come if he lets the OT or blocking TE get their hands on him in space - it’s harder for him to break free.

CBSsports.com says, “Strong upper body and closing speed make him an explosive tackler who is tough to elude in the backfield.” That 0.925 translates into great closing speed, both in coverage and in the pass rush. He’s going to need to learn to cover NFL receivers, but he’s had some coverage experience and has shown flashes, as Sapp noticed, of a natural ability there.  And, as far as his workout habits, he was given one of three Weightlifter of the Year awards in April of 2010. As noted, he’s also studying film of Derrick Thomas, and that’s a start. Miller will get a lot of time in the film room next year. He’s matured into a hard-working, elite talent.

Von Miller just may be in the right place at the right time. "It's a great time to be a linebacker, to do what I do," Miller said. "I tell them, a 3-4, a 4-3, a 5-2, however you want to line up, I just want to be the best defensive player in it. Ask me to do something and I'll do it."

Rushing the Passer

Watching a player who has 33 sacks over four seasons, John Fox was convinced. "In this league,” he said, “you have to rush the passer. They (quarterbacks are) too good just to let them stand there and look over your defense. He has the skill set to play this game, no doubt."

Mike Sherman coached him at Texas A&M, and he was asked what stands out about Miller’s game. “Causes concern for the quarterback,” Sherman said in his laconic way. Sherman also describes Miller’s college career as an intersection of “talent and aspirations.” With him on the Sam, in Fox’s defense where the pass rush comes from the strongside, instead of the more common weakside rush in a 4-3, Denver gives teams the choice of blocking DE Elvis Dumervil or Miller, or trying to stop them both one on one. It’s where the defensive tackles come in - if they, and Robert Ayers, can collapse the pocket and stop the run, the Broncos can have one of the better pass rushes in the league, and their front seven will improve fairly quickly.

I caught sight of Miller on the ESPN Skills Challenge. It’s just an entertainment show and yet what was obvious was the package of strength, speed, body control and effort. He won a very long combination drill that included pushing through heavy bags, around cones, through blocking pads, ducking low obstacles that required you to get very low to move through and at the end he was five seconds ahead of the second-place player. No other player really ran down the last 30 yards to the ‘finish line’ - they were exhausted. He tore through it. What was as intriguing was that he had a smile on his face the whole time and barely seemed winded. His conditioning must be superb.

What I saw of him in games was about the same - you can look at some areas where he will need to get stronger, like any player at this level, but he’s a truly singular player. Making the jump to the NFL is a huge leap, and a lot won’t make it. I’d be shocked if he didn’t start his first year and become dominant within three. He can clearly play the push-rushing Sam that Fox  prefers, going against the more common weakside rusher. With Doom on the DRE, Ayers collapsing the pocket from the DLE and setting the edge and Miller coming from the Sam, Denver would have an instant upgrade - if Denver can solve a lot of their DT and Mike issues as well.

With 178 tackles and 33 sacks over four years, and a Pro Day time of 4.49 in the 40, Miller is a force. NFLN's Charles Davis also called him the ‘best defensive player on the field’ in the Senior Bowl. As the Butkus Award winner, he’s considered the best LB in the draft. With five All-American grades, he shows up as the best of the class this year. In an NFL where rushing the QB is taking on almost sacred status, he’s the best pass-rushing LB out there, and he can cover as well. That’s a rare package.

He's surprisingly strong working to the inside and has speed to the outside. But if Miller comes out of his stance too high, offensive linemen can easily neutralize him in space. When Miller is playing at his best he has a variety of pass-rush moves, his best being an inside spin. He is also talented at using a jab step in the direction that he’s not going to move in, much like Carmelo Anthony did in basketball, and then taking his route to the other side. His explosive speed and ability to cut is such that he’ll be hard to stop when he has that opportunity. My biggest concern with him is his ability to stop the run consistently at the NFL level, but playing next to Robert Ayers should help that greatly as he gets comfortable with NFL play. His upper body strength and good fundamentals on his tackling form should also help. His 33.4" arm length and broad 9.199" hands will also help.

Denver needs to figure out what they will do with their defensive tackle issues. They have Marcus Thomas testing the market, Justin Bannan denied a roster bonus and currently gone, and have Kevin Vickerson and Louis Leonard at NT, without an undertackle other than Mitch Unrein on the roster. They will be highly vulnerable up the middle unless they solve that conundrum, and I expect one or both of their second round choices to be used on DTs. Free agency is also an option, although it is likely that there will be a bidding war on DTs, given the strange nature of the 2010 FA period. Denver will need to open their pocketbook to really compete, but you can’t really deny that Miller is the kind of piece that can make a defense much stronger right away.

Ayers will apparently be at strongside DE, and he is extremely powerful for his size. When he was drafted, the theory was that he was going to add muscular weight and play some DE as well as OLB. He can put that weight back on as muscle and become an even greater force, both against the run and in collapsing the pocket. He’s going to pick up some sacks, too - when you’re running from Doom on the weakside and Miller on the strongside, you’ve got Ayers waiting in your only outlet. Welcome to the turf. Rushing the passer just changed for Denver - as did pass coverage.

It’s a great first piece in the draft. Let’s hope that Denver does as well with the next 6 rounds - Go Broncos!

Resources

For more reading and viewing:

Interviews

Von Miller YouTubes:

  • 2009 Highlights
  • 2010 Highlights
  • Skills Competition 2011
  • Pro  Football Weekly’s analysis - Fox likes Jon Beason-type LBs, about 230 to to 240, and in that respect, Miller is nearly perfect for him. He can play Sam - if so, Denver has Doom on the right and him on the left and a killer pass rush. If they use Miller as a Will and flip Wesley Woodyard or Joe Mays to Sam (or draft Washington's Mason Foster, for example), you’ve got to deal with the constant threat of a weakside overload blitz, a blitz that TJ did a great job and broke down for us recently.
  • Highlights against Texas Miller is a natural Will on this film, which is an interesting thought. Mays could play Sam, perhaps Foster (my hopeful) could get some reps and with a Mike (DJ Williams or Braxton Kelley, for example, although Mays is still a favorite and Kelley can play Sam or Mike). Again - the overload blitz is a constant threat, and Miller stops the run as well as DJ (or Doom, up to now). And, without the middle of the line slamming that door shut, it won’t matter - teams will run up the gut the way they have for the past 3-4 years unless Denver solves that one.
  • Miller's plays against Nebraska - good and bad. Nebraska loves to run the ball, and does so out of the Pistol,  which they use to good effect. This shows the flaws in Miller’s game - his problems stopping the run with a powerful OL, and struggled in space. He did show signs of having trouble keeping his legs clean, but also had some impressive stops in traffic. Given the running games of the Chiefs and the Raiders ranked 1 and 2 last year, Denver needs to stop the run. Ayers moving to the DL should help, but they need more than that. A solid middle of the DL would help a lot.....but is Miller’s run stopping strong enough? It’s a fair concern, and I don’t know the answer. It’s going to be one of Fox’s first priorities, though.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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