Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
6’3″, 243 lbs.
Von Miller is terrific. He’s been one of the most exciting players to watch in all of college football the past two seasons. By all reports he’s a likeable personality with great intangibles who works hard and loves football. Therefore, it pains me to write what will end up seeming like a pretty negative analysis of him as a player. It’s unavoidable though, as I can’t read him any other way. And just because I love Von Miller the Aggie, or even Von Miller the Houston Texan, doesn’t mean I love Von Miller the Redskin.
But before I get into all that, some background information is necessary. Miller played outside linebacker in Texas A&M’s 3-4 front this season, after playing his previous three seasons at defensive end in an even front. In 2009 he was named an All-American after leading the country with 17 sacks. This season he took home the Butkus Award and added another 10.5 notches on his gun. That brings his career numbers to the ridiculous totals of 32.5 sacks, 50.5 tackles for loss, and 10 fumbles forced. Needless to say, he’s had a gigantic impact in opposing backfields for the past four years.
Here are a couple videos of cutups we’ll use to get a sense of him as a player. The first comes from Aaron Aloysius and his excellent youtube channel.
vs. Texas (2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtZcPMjiuho
vs. Nebraska (2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkDdpgRn7Pk
vs. Texas (2009): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoQII6vrPHE
First, I’ll give the usual discussion of build. Von Miller measured a 6025 and 237 pounds at the Senior Bowl. He hits 6’3 in cleats, which is adequate for the outside linebacker position. His arms also measured over 34 inches long which is a huge number for a player his height. The troubling measurement is his weight. Miller is a very lean player and he doesn’t have a lot of sand in his pants. He’s got a broad-shouldered build that tapers at the waist, an area where he is very narrow. He lacks the columnar build typical of 3-4 outside linebacker. Miller looks more like a wide receiver than a linebacker. Brian Orakpo, DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Lamarr Woodley, James Harrison, and even Elvis Dumervil and Clay Matthews III all have a thickness around their middle that Miller lacks. As a result, each are significantly stronger players than Miller. That’s not to say Miller is a weakling, because he’s well muscled throughout his chest and shoulders and can still crash hard and hit with some pop. But his slender core and base do give him problems when he attempts to anchor or rush with power against offensive linemen and tight ends.
From watching those videos, you can easily get a sense of what makes Miller such a special and exciting passrusher. He’s insanely quick. His first few steps have got to be among the fastest and most sudden in college football. That’ll probably hold true for him once he hits the NFL as well. Pair that with his 100 mile per hour closing speed and you’ve got a terrifying combination for a college offensive tackle trying to protect the edge of the pocket. Miller could give the Flash a run for his money in getting to the quarterback. He’s so sudden, and so fiendishly good at timing the snap count, that a lot of times he gets pressures and sacks from simply running by offensive linemen, basically untouched. Take a look at the pressure he registers at 0:41 in the 2010 Texas video. Miller was so quick off the snap that he’s three yards deep in the backfield before the tight end has even cleared the line of scrimmage and the left tackle on an inside route. Miller is actually able to use tight ends and running backs to screen tackles fairly often because he’s quicker than the timing of the offense.
Miller isn’t just a straight line athlete either. He can turn on a dime and has terrific balance and flexibility when he hits the corner. He keeps his feet through contact on the edge, and is able to close on the quarterback very rapidly like he does on the play at 2:20 in Texas 2010. He dips his shoulder well and keeps his arms free and he’s slippery so that offensive tackles tend to have a hard time engaging Miller initially when he speed rushes. That tremendous speed rush is his bread and butter and it’s the move he uses the vast majority of the time. But it isn’t his only move. He’s got a small set of slick counters and setups that he turns to every once in a while. In those videos you can see him use a spin move to disengage once. He’s also got a pretty good arm-over that he used once in Texas 2010. And his primary counter is a very nice juke which he employs to freeze a cheating tackle and gain a step or two on him inside.
As far as his hand use and technique go, when he actually engages a tackle, he shows flashes of skill. When he leans into tackles to build leverage and properly extends his long arms, Miller actually does a surprisingly good job of slipping of blocks. At the 2:00 mark of Texas 2010, at 2:32 in the same video, and at 1:10 in the Nebraska 2010 video. However, I’d caution that these types of plays are more the exception than the rule with Miller, and the majority of the time, Miller struggles after contact. That’s about what you’d expect from a 237 pound edge rusher.
However, I did want to point out that Miller’s small frame is an advantage at times because he’s very clever at losing himself in the crowd at the line of scrimmage. He gets low and skinny to make double teams difficult to execute like the one at 3:06 in Texas 2010. He’s also deadly on stunts and delayed inside blitzes where interior offensive linemen can have a hard time keeping track of him. Watch the play at 3:47 in Texas 2010 to see what I mean.
In coverage, Miller showed a surprising competency this season despite spending most of his career at defensive end. He’s a fluid open field athlete with a solid backpedal who’s comfortable sitting in zones. You’ll see him make a handful of plays on the ball in zone coverage in those cutups, even coming down with a gimme interception from Garrett Gilbert at the end of the Texas game. Miller is going to struggle in man coverage in the NFL, as evidenced by him getting run ragged trying to cover the tight ends and receivers during the Senior Bowl practices. But that’s pretty much the rule with 3-4 outside linebackers and is nothing to get excited about.
In run support, Miller is a mixed bag. For the positive, he’s a very good wrap-up tackler whose sideline to sideline range allows him to give chase and make plays in pursuit… when he wants to. He crashes hard and uses his quickness and upper body strength to keep tackles from building leverage on him when he does so. And finally, he’s a tough player who isn’t afraid to launch his body into running lanes and take out the fullback or close a gap. For the negative, Miller basically has very little anchor strength, gets taken off his feet more than you’d like, has an inconsistent motor when pursuing plays, and he generally displays poor instincts by overruning plays and losing the football.
Miller’s weakness against the run and problems stemming from the way he pass rushes are significant causes for concern. Specifically, his far-ranging aggressive style, reliance on quickness, and his small frame come with a downside that’s going to become a problem in the NFL. Basically, Miller loses most of his effectiveness as a pass rusher when a quick offensive tackle is actually able to engage him. He got a lot of his sacks in college from offensive confusion and breakdowns where he went unblocked, or had a teammate flush the quarterback and Miller’s offensive lineman didn’t finish the play. Those kinds of sacks aren’t going to come as often in the NFL where the skill level of the offensive tackles and the speed of offensive execution is much higher. Miller relies on taking very wide loops to the quarterback, and though he has a few counter moves predicated on his quickness, he almost entirely lacks an array of power moves. He has no bullrush to speak of so it’s going to be difficult for him set set NFL tackles up on his own. NFL tackles will simply cheat towards the edge and keep a look out for the juke. They won’t have to worry about dropping their anchor for fear of the bull rush, or worry about keeping their feet against the push/pull. Miller’s NFL coordinator is going to have to compensate for this by being clever and disguising his pressures with movement.
Those very wide angles Miller takes on his way to the quarterback have at least two problematic weaknesses that were easily detectable from Texas 2009. First, a quarterback can entirely avoid Miller’s rush by simply stepping up in the pocket. Playing for our defense, Miller is going to be rushing from the left outside linebacker position and thus will remain in the quarterback’s sight-lines the majority of the time. Because of that, I get the sinking feeling that Miller is going to be nearly useless unless he falls to a team that can get consistent interior penetration to take away the quarterback’s ability to step up. The second weakness of Miller’s aggressive style exploited in Texas 2009, was his tendency to completely take himself out of plays by rushing so wide. The zone read quarterback option keeper is Miller’s bane, as a smart, moderately athletic quarterback like Colt McCoy can repeatedly punish him with the play. I counted seven instances in that video where Miller displayed poor awareness in finding the ball or took himself out the play entirely and the result was a big Texas gain or first down on the ground. These were plays Miller could have prevented by rushing inside, keeping his head up, or even simply taking a sharper angle on his speed rush.
So Miller’s lack of discipline in run defense and questionable instincts for the linebacker position give his team a lot of problems when offenses run at him. He lacks the powerful anchor to play containment well and seems to overcompensate by trying to fill too often. A lot of times he just ends up leaving his side wide open for a cutback and big gain. His lack of rushing moves keyed on power makes him a one dimensional rusher when he tries to counter inside. Adam Ulatoski was a mediocre athlete and he completely stoned Miller on his inside counters. He even did a pretty a pretty good job consistently riding Miller wide of the pocket because of the ease with which he could anticipate his speed rushes. In the NFL, most weeks Miller is going to be rushing against tackles who are 70 pounds heavier, and whose 40 yard dash times are only a couple tenths of a second slower than his. He’s going to have problems if he can’t vary his attack and can’t find a way to get off blocks once his first move fails. We’ve seen smaller, one or two trick pony pass rushers who predicate their game on quickness struggle to translate their strengths to the NFL. The people hoping for the best from Miller will make a Clay Matthews comparison. Those more pessimistic will mention Everette Brown. Regardless, both Matthews and Brown are thicker players than Miller who rush inside and handle contact better than Miller does, even when they were still at the college level.
What he entails for the Redskins
There can be no doubt that Miller’s best position in the NFL is either as a 3-4 rush outside linebacker or as a 4-3 strong side linebacker. He simply lacks the frame to play in a three point stance on the line and he lacks the instincts to play either inside linebacker or 4-3 WILL. He’s also not going to fare well as an edge setting strong side outside linebacker in the 3-4 front because of his lack of ability to anchor. For Jim Haslett’s Pittsburgh-style scheme, that player is the left outside linebacker, and should be a Lamarr Woodley type. That certainly isn’t Miller.
Unfortunately, Miller is not a very versatile player in our scheme. He needs to play the right outside linebacker position, a spot that is already conspicuously occupied by Brian Orakpo. Even in Miller’s best case scenario as a Clay Matthews-style, undersized edge rusher, Miller doesn’t offer a good fit for us for that reason. Simply put, Orakpo is our burgeoning superstar, a franchise caliber player, and the cornerstone upon which our defense is being built. Miller isn’t going to displace him. Miller would have to adjust to the left outside linebacker role, and we would need to alter our scheme enough compensate for being soft on the left edge of the defense (the side where we’re supposed to be stout). And remember how I said that Miller is going to need to land on a team that can generate consistent interior pressure to keep the QB from stepping up in the pocket? That’s not really us. Our group of defensive linemen consists almost entirely of big two gappers and journeymen. Our inside linebackers aren’t known for their ability to blitz. Unless we start nailing some interior defensive front seven draft picks this year and next, I don’t think Miller would get the kind of support he needs to be successful.
Working in his favor, Miller is only 21 years old and will naturally fill out a bit more in an NFL conditioning program. But I’m uncomfortable projecting the kind of growth it would take for Miller to go from being a liability against the run in college to stout in the NFL. And I think it’s safe to say that he’ll never go from a Clay Matthews body type and skill set to a Lamarr Woodley. Those kinds of transformations simply don’t happen.
So when you find yourself thinking things like, “well, he’ll be fine once he packs on another 25 pounds,” or, “well, we can just rework our schemes or move our best players around to make it work,” chances are that the player in question is not a good fit for you. Taking the guy who might be the best player on the general draft board, but isn’t a good fit in your organization can be just as problematic as reaching with your selections to fill immediate needs. Greg Gabriel at the National Football Post explained in a podcast how the Bears scouting department gave players their grades followed by either a plus notation, no notation, or a minus notation. The numeric or letter grade was an indication of the player’s general value and what round he’d be generally projected to go. The plus notation indicated that the player in question was a superlative fit for your organization and that you could feel comfortable taking him earlier than his general projection because you needed him more than other teams did. If there was a minus notation next to a prospect’s grade, it meant that he wasn’t a good fit in your organization and that you should ignore him in the draft unless he fell to a round far below his general grade. Using that system, Von Miller’s grade should definitely carry a minus behind it for the Redskins.
I want to conclude my evaluation of Miller by stressing that I think Miller is a great player and a very good prospect–for some other team. I really hope he falls to the right organization on draft day so that he can maximize his success at the next level. If he is drafted by an organization like the Cardinals or Texans, who run a one gapping 3-4 over front and have no featured pass rushing right outside linebacker already in place, then I have no doubt that Miller could be a star. But if he ends up on an organization that already has a Brian Orakpo, Clay Matthews, James Harrison, or DeMarcus Ware, it’s not going to be an ideal fit.