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Von Miller Does It All

That’s why Denver is paying the linebacker like a quarterback

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Broncos and Von Miller reached a historic agreement on Friday, when Denver signed the star outside linebacker to a record six-year, $114 million deal that includes up to $70 million in guarantees. After five months of heated negotiations, strategic media leaks, and Miller threatening to sit out the season to protest being given the franchise tag, the two sides agreed on what’s now the biggest contract ever for a defensive player.

So, what does $70 million guaranteed get the Broncos?

An Elite Pass Rusher

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Miller is one of the most explosive players in the NFL, and he’s put that athleticism to good use in Denver. He’s averaged 85.5 quarterback pressures a year during his four full seasons — or about five per game in his career. That’s J.J. Watt ridiculousness territory. He has 4.5-second-40 speed, insane flexibility to bend around offensive tackles on the edge, and a solid repertoire of pass-rushing moves. Miller can get past linemen with speed alone — and he did many times this past season — but it’s his subtle jukes and double moves that more frequently allow him to get around blockers. This strip sack that led to a Malik Jackson touchdown in the Super Bowl is the perfect example:

Not only is Miller’s speed and balance on the rush important, but you rarely see offensive linemen get a solid grip on him. He’s mastered his hand usage, constantly slicing, punching, and swimming through blocks.

All of Miller’s different rushes work off of each other, and it creates a chess match between pass rusher and lineman. Imagine being a right tackle and trying to decide how deep to get in your pass set; with Miller’s speed, do you overcompensate and drop extra deep, anticipating that outside rush? That’s risky, because it puts you out on an island, and that’s exactly what happened to Mike Remmers later in the Super Bowl. With Remmers too far detached from the line, Miller hit him with a spin move, and had plenty of room to slice through for the sack.

Postseason included, Miller ended up with 105 quarterback pressures last year — 23 more than the next closest 3–4 OLB.

Coverage Skills

Sacks are sexy, but Miller doesn’t get enough credit for his work in coverage. Those skills were apparent during Denver’s championship run, particularly when he picked off Tom Brady in the AFC championship game.

At the snap, Miller drops instead of rushing forward, and he jams New England tight end Rob Gronkowski at the line, hoping to disrupt his route and his timing. He carries Gronk downfield a bit, then takes a quick peek back to see where the route is headed. When he sees that it’s an out route, Miller pivots and jumps in front of it, essentially running Gronk’s route for him. Oh, and then he catches the ball, which is not something every outside linebacker is able to do.

His coverage skills showed up in the Super Bowl, too.

How many sack artists do you see making this play? Miller’s versatility comes in handy at every level of the field for Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who can disguise schemes and vary his play-calling without switching his personnel.

Strength Against the Run

Miller doesn’t get enough credit for his run-defending ability, either. In Phillips’s hybrid 3–4 defense, Miller is asked to do a lot more than just rush the passer like a berserker. On first and second down, he frequently plays strongside linebacker, a role that can require him to set the edge in the run against tackles and tight ends, forcing the ballcarrier back inside to the meat of the defense. Miller’s a three-down player because he’s aggressive against the run, and he’s extremely aware as a defender, frequently chasing down quarterback scrambles or cutting off running backs attempting backside cutbacks.

A Spy’s Athleticism

Phillips doesn’t need this week in and week out, but Miller’s athleticism was put to the test in the Super Bowl, when he was asked to “spy” Cam Newton on a few key third-down plays. Instead of rushing upfield and past his target, Miller would sit back behind the line, watching and waiting for Newton to scramble. Acting as a deterrent kept Miller from rushing the quarterback, but it forced Newton to stay in the pocket and allowed the rest of the Broncos’ pass rush to finish the job, as they tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks.

So, does it make sense to pay a defensive player quarterback money?

Ndamukong Suh is really the only preexisting example of a defensive guy making over $19 million a year on average, and his performance so far would suggest that the answer is “no.” But other than J.J. Watt, there’s no one on the defensive side of the ball who’s more game-altering than Miller.

Miller’s recent playoff performance is especially compelling from this point of view. He absolutely dominated every postseason game the Broncos played on the way to their Super Bowl win. Denver didn’t need much of an offense; the Broncos just needed Miller to take over games. He amassed 11 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed, and an interception in three games. Plus, that all came against three of the NFL’s best quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Cam Newton.

Whether or not Denver will be able to pay Miller $19 million a year and also pay a franchise quarterback the necessary $20 million-plus while maintaining a strong, deep roster in the process ​doesn’t really matter. With Peyton Manning retired and Brock Osweiler gone in free agency, Denver doesn’t have to worry about that at the moment. Quarterbacks worth $20 million-plus don’t generally hit free agency anyway, so the Broncos will look to develop Paxton Lynch and hope to get the most out of him while he’s on his rookie contract. If Lynch doesn’t work out, they’ll keep drafting quarterbacks, but in the meantime, they’ll pay their pass-rushing outside linebacker that franchise-quarterback money.