by Matt Waldman
The cornerback class for the 2013 NFL Draft is a good group. None of them are potential superstars on the level of Patrick Peterson, but the depth is good. Two weeks ago I kicked off a study of the top of the cornerback class with NC State’s David Amerson, a tall, rangy ball hawk, who is skilled at playing off-man coverage. He can make a good Cover-2 corner, or could shift to free safety if he can become a better run defender.
Last week, Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes was in the crosshairs. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound cornerback has Peterson’s size and top-end athleticism, and with more experience and work he could develop into a shutdown corner. In my eyes, his experience and skill as a press corner and run defender makes him a better prospect than Amerson.
The best of the trio is this week’s subject, DeMarcus "Dee" Milliner. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound corner from Alabama has a frame that’s sturdier than Amerson, but he's not as big as Rhodes. It doesn’t matter, because Milliner is the best of the three against the run, exhibits quicker read-and-react skills than Rhodes, and plays a greater variety of coverage techniques with the most skill of the three.
Milliner’s ball skills are also good enough that he should have a shot to start early in his career and could have a productive future in any system.
Milliner vs. the Run
There are cases where a scheme might limit a player’s role, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that player can’t perform to his true talents in a different scheme. Still, how a team uses a player is often a good reference point to compare him to his peers. One of the things that Alabama does with Milliner at corner (that NC State doesn’t do with Amerson) is run blitz.
What I like most about Milliner’s run blitzing is how well he disguises his intentions.
The Michigan Wolverines have a nice-looking play set up on this first-and-10 run with 6:48 in the first quarter of Alabama's season opener. Michigan is in a 20-personnel shotgun set with receivers 2x1, which is usually a pass look with many teams. The play is drawn up for the running back flanking the quarterback’s right to read the defensive end before deciding to cut inside or outside of his fullback’s lead block.
The left tackle and left guard double team the defensive tackle, which leaves the defensive end free for the right guard to attack on his pull. If the defensive end takes a wide path to the backfield, then the running back dips inside the pulling guard and behind his fullback attacking the linebacker at the left hash. If the end takes a tight line to the backfield, the Michigan runner still has two options depending on his fullback’s position on the linebacker.
Milliner is the monkey wrench in Michigan’s plans because if the Wolverines read run-blitz, the quarterback would change the play to a pass or go to a different run. The reason there is no change is Milliner, whose stance is inconspicuous enough to fool the receiver and the quarterback into thinking that he’s playing press coverage. Note how Milliner remains in a crouch with his toes, knees, and hips pointed at the receiver and his hands extended with his elbow bent. Like a skilled wide receiver who always looks like he’s running the same route every time he releases from the line of scrimmage, a good cornerback does the same thing with his stance.
The added layer of subtlety that makes Milliner’s run blitz even better is his position against the receiver. Milliner isn’t shading the receiver inside. If he was, and the receiver noticed the position of the safety shaded inside, the receiver might get suspicious. Milliner’s outside leg is outside the receiver and his alignment shades the receiver, so the natural thought is that the corner is hoping to funnel the offensive player towards the safety to the inside. The receiver is now focused on running an outside-breaking route or getting a quick release inside on a slant under the safety. He’s thinking pass all the way and that means Milliner should have a free get-off to the backfield.
Milliner doesn’t tip off his intentions until Michigan snaps the ball. Once the play begins the intentions of the key players becomes clearer.
The alignment and position of Milliner and the safety bait the Wolverines receiver into taking an outside release. This gives Milliner a free path to the backfield. The Crimson Tide defensive end takes a narrow release down the line, which prevents any cutback attempt and gives the fullback an easy decision to maintain his course towards the linebacker. The defensive end’s angle is likely the assignment to set up this run blitz and it’s an example as to why gap assignments can be so important.
If the defensive end opts to freelance, he could ruin the impact of the corner blitz and inadvertently open a hole for a huge offensive play. Lions running back Joique Bell’s 26-yard touchdown run at the beginning of the fourth quarter against the Texans on Thanksgiving was a good example. As defensive end J.J. Watt was getting lectured by his coach Bill Kollar, he erupted into anger and shouted over and over, "I know the plays!" No team-oriented defensive player wants to be accused of putting himself ahead of his team.
If Alabama’s defensive end took a wide path to the backfield, the fullback would be more likely to see the blitzing corner and adjust his assignment. That would put the running back either one-on-one with the linebacker or in a situation where he can work behind the pulling right guard, who then attacks the linebacker. The end’s job is to force the running back outside, but also keep the fullback focused down field.
Another important point to note is the defensive back in the slot. There is the potential of Michigan running a backside version of this play, which is either a zone-read option by the quarterback or a play-action pass to the slot receiver at the right flat. If the backside defensive back is too aggressive on run defense, the quarterback could pull the ball and throw the ball outside. This backside support also underscores the importance of team football.
Milliner does a good job establishing position on the running back once he reaches the backfield. His pads are angled to force the running back inside, where there’s help from his teammates. Milliner also establishes this position early enough so he can square his target.
Milliner’s angle forces the runner inside and the corner delivers a hit with his pads just under the back. He aims high enough to afford himself room to slide down the runner after initial contact and still wrap a leg. He succeeds in tripping the runner for a short loss.
One of the things I like about Milliner is that he’s not the ankle-tackler that Amerson tends to be. Here’s a first-and-10 run against Michigan with 4:25 in the half where Milliner switches spots with the safety before the snap, reads the run, and works downhill to deliver a hit, driving through the runner.
The linemen hide the hit and wrap just enough that it’s difficult to see the full impact of the tackle, but the runner is driven sideways and stopped at the point of contact. Keep in mind that the runner is Thomas Rawls, a 5-foot-10, 218-pound runner with feature back dimensions.
Here’s a play from 2011 where Milliner ends a reverse in the backfield for a loss against Arkansas.
The cornerback begins the play working the backside, flowing in the same direction as the ball carrier, but check out the location of his helmet and his feet and legs in the next frame.
As soon as Milliner sees receiver Joe Adams motioning to the backfield, the Alabama defender begins to change direction. He reads the reverse at least five yards prior to the exchange point. It’s this kind of awareness that is important to have as a run defender.
Milliner gets upfield in a hurry and establishes position, with his back angled towards the sideline to spill Adams inside where there’s additional help. But Adams doesn’t take the bait of Milliner’s angle and attempts to bounce it.
What I like here is Milliner’s footwork: he moves laterally while keeping his shoulders square to the ball carrier. He’s also able to close the angle on the runner despite the fact that he was in a static position to spill the runner inside just a second ago.
Milliner fights through a stiff arm, grabs Adams high, and drags the runner to the ground, demonstrating a strong grip in the process. Technique, strength, quickness, and awareness make Milliner a strong run defender. His versatility will appeal to NFL teams. At the very least, the fundamentals for a first-year special team contributor are all here, and Milliner has experience covering punts and kickoffs for the Crimson Tide.
Milliner in Pass Coverage
Milliner’s skills at reading a play after the snap also extend to the pass. Here’s a play against Michigan where the Alabama corner has to make a quick decision.
The Wolverines run an interesting route combination. The tight end runs a hook with a break at the depth necessary to give the running back room to execute a swing route further outside. Milliner has to account for the tight end early in the play, but as soon as he reads the quarterback’s eyes he works outside to the back.
Milliner breaks on the pass before the ball reaches the running back’s hands.
In this case, Milliner misses the ankle tackle of the runner, but he drives the runner far enough to the sideline with the attempt to end the play. His effort forces the runner to stop and attempt to dip inside to avoid a second oncoming defender. The runner gets the first down and it’s not a positive outcome in Milliner’s ledger, but the read and reaction are something to build on.
I have also seen Milliner assert himself on a similar play to the slant that I profiled Xavier Rhodes defending last week. The Alabama corner has to demonstrate good trail technique where he’ll close on the ball, and swat it away as it reaches the receiver. This is pretty standard fare for a corner, and he does a good job maintaining correct position with his toes, knees, and hips pointed at the receiver as the opponent makes a move towards the sideline before breaking to the inside. Milliner’s recovery speed and timing to make the hit and swat the ball are all sound.
Milliner demonstrates this ability to work from the hip pocket of the receiver on a deep route during a third-and-10 with 13:32 in the half of the Michigan game.
Milliner once again shades the receiver outside, but his body is consistently in the same crouch he always uses at the line of scrimmage.
The receiver is running a sideline route but Milliner forces him to work inside. The corner does a good job getting his hands on the receiver during the release. As the receiver works up the flat, Milliner peaks into the backfield while maintaining a slight lead on the initial footrace.
He continues spying on the quarterback as his opponent begins his break outside. The receiver extends his arm into the chest of Milliner to get position and deliver a slight push.
The contact helps the receiver gain additional separation, actually bending Milliner upright for a split second, but the corner continues to play the ball. When a cornerback is playing the ball this far downfield on a route, it’s a sign he has confidence in his athleticism to stay close to his opponent.
Milliner turns his hips quick enough to change direction and undercut the receiver’s break.
I like how the cornerback has one arm checking the receiver’s arm and the other at the level of his opponent's face mask in preparation to strike at the incoming pass. The location of his arm on the receiver’s forearm is good placement. If Milliner correctly judges the position of the pass, the receiver will face some resistance as he begins his extension for the ball.
However, this is not the case. The ball arrives at a higher angle than Milliner first anticipates. Not a problem. Milliner has the hand-eye coordination to use his right arm to reach for the ball and bat it away from the receiver.
Although he misjudged the pass at first, Milliner’s hand position on the receiver’s arm still did just enough to help him be first to reach the pass. His arm was higher than the receiver’s and he had less space to cover. This is another instance where technique makes a difference in a game of inches.
Playing the ball rather than the receiver can backfire against a higher-caliber athlete. This play against Michigan receiver (and now, quarterback) Devin Gardner, a player who beat Milliner for a 44-yard score when the corner got his legs tangled in the receiver’s and fell to the turf, is a good example. Although the play ends well for Milliner, his play of the football instead of the man makes this snap a high-wire act.
This route is an out-and-up and the good part of Milliner’s focus on the quarterback is that he doesn’t fall for the receiver’s break outside.
If anything, Milliner has anticipated this route, because he backpedals towards the sideline to close the horizontal gap between him and Gardner before resuming his path downfield. The fact that Milliner is still staring down the pocket while making this change of direction is a strong demonstration of on-field awareness.
Where Milliner’s decision gets dicey is when he has to play catch-up with an athlete like Gardner, who builds an early lead. At this point, the Alabama corner has no choice but to focus his attention solely on the receiver.
Milliner’s backpedal wasn’t enough to close the gap on the initial break outside, and he will have to demonstrate strong recovery speed to prevent a big play. One thing working in Milliner’s favor (that won’t usually be the case in the NFL) is that he’s facing a college quarterback who places too much arc on this deep pass. That forces Gardner to slow his stride and give Milliner a chance to get back into the play.
If anything, Gardner doesn’t slow his gait enough, and has to stop and turn back to the ball a little more than a receiver this open should. It gives Milliner time to resume playing the ball rather than the receiver.
Milliner gets into the hip pocket of the receiver and gets his hand on the pass at the same time as Gardner, who is forced to high-point the ball. Milliner now has the advantage because he’s making a play on the ball with his back to the receiver rather than the other way around. Gardner has to work over Milliner like a defensive back.
One of the best parts of this play is Milliner’s athleticism and hand-eye coordination. Here’s a different angle that shows how good Milliner is with the ball in the air.
Gardner is the first to leap for the ball and achieves a higher vertical than Milliner. This has nothing to do with Milliner’s leaping capability, though. The cornerback is fading towards the football in terms of his momentum and this minimizes the power he can get with his vertical. The wide receiver is in position to attack and is closer to maximizing his leap.
Milliner misses the ball with his leap while Gardner high-points the football with his hands just inches above his opponent. Despite the initial advantage to the Michigan receiver, this play is far from over. Turning this play around takes less than a second.
Milliner continues to lean towards the receiver, and because he is the last to leap, he is still closer to the peak height of his jump than Gardner, which helps him get his hand on the football as the receiver is returning to earth.
Milliner turns towards the receiver once he makes contact with the football so he can focus on the ball as he pulls it loose from Gardner’s grip. This is a great example of playing the ball in the air and having a second effort to work until the very end of the play.
This isn't a fluke. Milliner did something similar against former Arkansas receiver Greg Childs last year.
Milliner turns and gets good position on the ball.
Although Childs is taller, and is the first to leap, Milliner has a good angle of the pass.
Milliner is first to the ball. Even with Childs wrapped around his back, the corner secures the ball in the air after contact.
Here’s a veteran play that results in a turnover. Milliner is playing man against receiver Roy Roundtree, who is trying to get an outside release.
Once again, Milliner plays with consistent crouch and hand position at the line of scrimmage. When Roundtree gets outside and dangerously close to the sideline, Milliner finishes the deal with a shove to force the receiver out of bounds.
Milliner then looks back to the ball, tracks it as he sprints 10 yards up the sideline, and makes a beautiful, over-the-shoulder catch with his arms extended from his body for the interception.
As he takes it up the flat, he gains over 30 yards and finishes the return with a collision where he gives a forearm shiver to quarterback Denard Robinson, who is shaken after the play.
Milliner may not be the best cornerback prospect to ever grace a college stadium, but he’s one of the best prospects in this 2013 draft class. He plays the run and pass with nearly equal skill and he understands when he needs to be a ball hawk and when it’s better to knock the ball loose. The Lions, Raiders, Eagles, and Redskins are all teams that could benefit from Milliner’s services. I’d be surprised if he’s not a top-10 pick.