It’s time to start thinking of Von Miller in a new light. The Broncos rookie is running away with our rookie of the year poll, but that doesn’t come close to doing him justice. Miller has been arguably the biggest reason behind the defensive resurgence in Denver, and he really should have the rookie awards locked up; his play dominates that of any other defensive rookie, so let’s look beyond to a farther horizon.
It’s time we forgot talk of best rookie and started to think in terms of Pro-Bowl, All-Pro, maybe even Defensive Player of the Year. It sounds crazy, but there may not be a better candidate than Miller right now.
Most people think of him as just an edge rusher, but in Denver’s defense Miller is an every down player, and essentially plays two positions. In a way similar to Kamerion Wimbley for the Raiders, on early downs he’s a stand-up 4-3 outside linebacker, albeit often over-shifted to one side of the formation, but then on pass-rushing downs he rushes from his side of usually a four-man pass-rush. The difference between Miller and Wimbley in their deployment is that while Wimbley rushes almost exclusively as a conventional 4-3 defensive end with his hand in the ground, Miller will rush from a two-point stance and has only lined up as a 4-3 end on 112 of his 700 snaps. You know he’s coming, but you don’t always know when, he can just as easily drop into coverage from that stance.
Needless to say, Miller is sitting at the top of our 4-3 outside linebacker grades at the moment, and by some staggering margin. His +51.3 grade is some distance from his nearest challenger (Wimbley at +34.1) and more than double the next placed player (Daryl Smith of the Jaguars). The interesting thing, though, comes when you take away his pass-rushing and just look at the rest of his game. Focusing only on his play as a run defender and in coverage, he is still having an All-Pro caliber season. Baltimore’s Jarrett Johnson has been our top-graded 4-3 OLB against the run for the past two seasons, and has never been outside of the Top 3 in that regard since we’ve been grading. Miller is currently as far ahead of Johnson as Johnson is from the rest of the field in run defense. He has stepped in as a rookie and is performing better than the standard set at the position for the past three seasons.
Able to use his quickness and strength to set the edge and torpedo through traffic on runs coming in his direction, even when he isn’t making the play he is often disrupting it beyond repair for somebody else to finish it off. Miller is also the only linebacker in the league with more than 25 tackles that has yet to miss one. He trails only four other 4-3 outside linebackers in defensive stops (tackles which constitute an offensive failure), with 36, despite having far fewer tackling opportunities than most other linebackers that play in a more conventional alignment away from the line of scrimmage.
If all he did was play 4-3 outside linebacker we would be talking about him in terms of the Pro Bowl and All-Pro, he’s that good at disrupting plays and making things happen, but Miller adds an extra dimension that most don’t. When some linebackers are dropped to the bench or forced into uncomfortable roles in coverage against quicker receivers, Miller drops down to a pass-rushing role, and here is what thrusts him into Defensive Player of the Year talk.
Varied Attack Getting Stronger
Only two players (Miami’s Cameron Wake and Chris Long from the Rams) have totaled more combined pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) than Miller, and both have done so with more attempts at rushing the passer. When looking at our recent Pass Rushing Productivity article, we see that only one player, Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap, can top Miller’s effectiveness as a pass-rushing force, and Dunlap remains something of a situational player in Cincinnati, with 100 fewer pass-rushes than Miller and almost 400 fewer snaps. He is rushing the passer more efficiently than almost anybody in the league, and the one player who can top him is being deliberately spelled in order to ensure he remains fresh when he rushes. Miller is matching that level of performance despite playing a role as a conventional linebacker in coverage and run support for the rest of the game.
The scary part is that when most rookies are running into the metaphorical wall, Miller seems to be getting stronger. His past four games have been his strongest four, and at the moment he is proving to be an adversary that right tackles can’t contain. At 6’3 and 246lbs, he possesses an ability to dip and bend like few players that size. He is able to maintain such a low center of gravity that you could easily believe he was several inches shorter, but he also shows a range of pass rushing moves beyond most rookies.
Many rookies come into the league as athletic specimens, but relying heavily on one or two pass-rush moves with which they always look to succeed before developing more over the long-term. Looking through the sacks he has accumulated this season will show only two that have come without beating an offensive lineman, and he has recorded near instant sacks using outside moves, inside moves, bull rushes and stunts. Rarely do sacks tell the whole story, something we’re often at pains to point out at PFF, but if you drew up a highlight reel only of Miller’s sacks this season, you would see an accomplished and varied arsenal of pass-rushing moves already mastered.
As a pass-rusher Miller has yet to be shut out this season and in only two games (both in his first three weeks of the season, one of which involved just nine pass rushes) has he been unable to record multiple pressures.
Best in a Decade
The way in which the Broncos use Miller means that for all intents and purposes he plays two positions for them, depending on the down and distance. What is truly remarkable is that, despite being a rookie, he is arguably the best player in the league right now at either spot. This might be the most dominant season from a rookie since Randy Moss defined the word ‘uncoverable’ in his first year with a chip on his shoulder in 1998. Often we get caught up in hype over substance, but Miller might be one case of the substance far outstripping the hype, and we may be witnessing the best rookie performance in more than a decade. Forget Rookie of the Year, through 12 weeks Von Miller is the Defensive Player of the Year.