Why Von Miller should be the NFL’s highest paid defender

Senior Analyst Sam Monson breaks down the play of free agent OLB Von Miller, explaining why timing is everything on the open market.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Why Von Miller should be the NFL’s highest paid defender

There’s something to timing in the NFL. Von Miller ended the 2015 NFL season with one of the best runs of his career, being the single most dominant player in both the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl—and now enters free agency looking for a new contract.

The 2011 NFL draft produced some exceptional NFL talent, and most have already been locked down to big-money second contracts. Marcell Dareus, J.J. Watt, and Justin Houston have already topped $100 million in their new deals, and Patrick Peterson, Robert Quinn, and Cameron Jordan are among others that have signed big-money extensions, just on the defensive side of the ball.

Justin Houston is perhaps the best analogue for Von Miller in the 2011 draft class. Like Miller, Houston is a dynamic edge rusher who has emerged as one of the league’s best. Miller may not have the contract yet, but he has been the better player over their careers so far.

Houston has 279 total career pressures. Miller has 383, despite missing half of the 2013 season (through suspension—something that could halt his charge to the biggest money possible).

The two players are actually comparable in another way also, because both spend more time in coverage than you might think. Over their careers, Houston and Miller have combined for 1,265 snaps in coverage, more than a full season’s worth of work between them. Miller, in particular, showcased that ability on the biggest stage—in the Super Bowl.

He was only thrown at once in that game when in coverage, but he was able to line up in the slot, cover a wide receiver (albeit an aging, slow one in the form of Jerricho Cotchery), live with a double move and be in phase down the sideline when the ball arrived, able to dislodge it and prevent the catch. Try and imagine Cameron Wake doing that, or even DeMarcus Ware on the other side of the Denver formation. Edge rushers are not supposed to have that ability, but Miller—and to an extent, Houston—does.

He also showed scheme flexibility in Denver. The Broncos have run a 4-3 front, something of a hybrid, and a 3-4 during Miller’s time there; the first of those meant that they needed to employ him as a true off-the-ball linebacker on early downs. This wasn’t a guy playing stand-up edge rusher, but a true strong side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme until they hit sub-packages and could allow him rush the passer from the edge again.

Miller excelled in all of those schemes, and that opens up his potential landing spot, from a schematic point of view, to the entire NFL. There is no scheme in the league that he would not be a fit for and be expected to dominate.

As a pass rusher, there may be no more devastating a force in football. Looking at just his four full seasons, he has averaged 85.5 total pressures per season. Over his career, he has averaged 4.8 total pressures per game, and in the final four games of Denver’s season—all of them key encounters—he averaged 7.5 total pressures, not even counting the game-changing interceptions and forced fumbles he threw in to the bargain.

Right now, the only defensive player with a credible case to be seen as better than Von Miller over an extended period of time is J.J. Watt. Watt’s contract is worth an even $100 million over its lifespan, which falls some way short of the deal Ndamukong Suh signed when he hit the open market a year ago ($114.4 million).

Is Miller the best defensive player in football right now? Probably not. But is he better than Suh, the current best paid defender in the league? Absolutely, and it’s not particularly close.

The bottom line is that being the best paid player is all about timing. Suh’s contract came up at the right time, and he was allowed to hit the open market, so he cashed in big.

The Broncos aren’t going to let Miller hit the open market, likely franchise tagging him if necessary to keep him in Denver as long as it takes to work out a long-term deal, but in all other ways, Miller’s timing is perfect to maximize his money. He should be shooting for a contract richer than the one J.J. Watt or Justin Houston received, but he may come short of the truckloads of cash Suh was able to talk out of Miami.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Tony

    Yeah…Von Miller hasn’t been any better than Justin Houston. That’s probably why, you know, PFF ranks Houston as a better edge defender on its home page.

    This site is so inconsistent.

    • SpringsGal

      Justin Houston was non entity in the playoff game against NE. Miller was dominant against NE and Carolina. The naked eye test tells me that Miller is by far the best edge pass rusher this league. He was devastating in the playoffs. Next award that Miller should shoot for is the Defensive MVP – an award that J.J. Watt has won the past several years.

      • LH Almeida

        Miller isn’t a media face like JJ, that makes it harder to see him getting more votes than him. But let’s hope everyone sees the obvious one day.

        • anon76returns

          Miller does alright. He did beat out Watt for DROY in 2011, and got a vote for DPOY in 2012 (preventing Watt from being a unanimous choice). He’s high profile enough that if he has another crazy 18+ sack season he’ll challenge Watt (and Donald and Kuechly) for DPOY.

        • SpringsGal

          JJ has had more tangible production on the field as opposed to Miller (more sacks, big plays and such) so far. But JJ does not cover receivers like Miller (so JJ has more chances to put up those big sack numbers).

          Miller climbed into upper echelon player this postseason. He produced in the biggest of games with the whole national audience watching. As long as he is comparable to Watt in production next year, Miller will get his fair share of votes. Same thing goes for the rest of the Broncos defense. As long as they are decent, more Bronco players will get pro bowl nods and such….because of the SUper Bowl win.

      • D’Andre Pryor

        Justin Houston was playing hurt shouldn’t of been out there so was the rest of the Chiefs squad

    • anon76returns

      Miller had a higher regular season grade than Houston every year from 2011-2014, though 2014 was close.
      In 2015, Miller had a highergrade through something like the first 10 weeks of the season, then Houston pulled ahead in the last few weeks including the end of the regular season (which is what’s displayed on the PFF front page), and then Miller far exceeded Houston with his play in the playoffs.