There’s no such thing as a “safe” prospect. It’s an illusion that many — scouts and general managers included — fall into when evaluating prospects. Yet that label is frequently attached to collegiate athletes during draft season, and it doesn’t always quite work out. Aaron Curry was that player in 2009 when the Seattle Seahawks selected him fourth overall, and all he’s been is a risk to put on the field. This year, the safe player to some – namely Mike Mayock – is Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.
Milliner, who is six-foot, 201 pounds and reminds me of the 49ers’ Carlos Rogers in many ways, is widely considered to be the top cornerback in this year’s draft class, and he’s destined to be a top 5 selection. He’s earned the right to be selected that highly because he’s a very good cornerback. He runs well — as evidenced by his blazing 4.37 40-yard dash — he possesses quick feet, and he’s spent an inordinate amount of time in press-man coverage. Most cornerbacks don’t have that kind of responsibility, but in Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s hybrid scheme, Milliner did.
A reason why Milliner is asked to play that sort of coverage is not simply because of his physical tools, but also his mentality. He’s a very smart defender who trusts his technique to its fullest and never panics in coverage. That’s a trait which won’t pop out in the 40-yard dash or most of the other drills at the scouting combine, but it does on tape, and it’s something that’s very important to have in the pros.
In general, most professional cornerbacks make plenty of mistakes over the course of the regular season. Whether it’s fixating their eyes on the quarterback when they should be covering or biting too hard on play action, cornerbacks are typically undisciplined. That’s why there’s so much praise handed out to those who aren’t, such as the New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis. Milliner doesn’t have the same physical talent that Revis has, even though he’s likely to go earlier than Revis did when he was selected No. 14 in 2007. But he has a similar trust in his technique.
In the BCS Championship game against Notre Dame, Milliner showed his discipline on a turnover that he was mostly responsible for creating.
It was 2nd-and-10 early in the third quarter when Milliner was lined up in the short side of the field known as the boundary. Despite leading 28-0, the Crimson Tide defense wasn’t allowing any easy points and were continuing to be physical with the Irish pass-catchers, which especially applied to Milliner. He gave a yard of cushion to the receiver before rerouting him.
The receiver, who was lined up with a short split that usually indicates an outside-breaking route, released outside when he got off the line of scrimmage. His goal was to work the sideline, ideally giving enough cushion so that his quarterback could drop the ball in. That plan was quickly scrapped, however, when Milliner rerouted the receiver five yards after the snap. Milliner’s strong jolt knocked the receiver off his route, pushing him further toward the sideline and disrupting the connection between the route and the quarterback’s drop.
After Milliner rerouted the receiver, he stuck close to him in coverage downfield. He pinned the receiver to the sideline and gave the quarterback little-to-no room to place the football. Continuing to run shoulder-to-shoulder, the cornerback turned his head to locate the football and track it as it came in his direction.
When the ball fell, Milliner attempted to intercept it, but instead batted it away to his teammate who completed the pick.
Milliner’s technique throughout this play reflects what coaches teach when they’re demonstrating how to defend routes down the sideline, and he did it against a receiver who was aligned with a reduced split. This experience will come in handy in the NFL, where offensive coordinators are obsessed with stack and bunch sets. Stack and bunch sets force defensive backs to play at varying cushions, and in some cases, in press-man coverage on the receiver aligned at the line of scrimmage. That’s something Milliner can do, which he showed not only on this play but on dozens of others in his college career.
Although he plays with discipline and high quality technique, he needs to do a better job of tracking the football. I’d like to see him improve in this area, as it’s something that cornerbacks must do well at the next level. Many of the previously selected Alabama cornerbacks have had the same problems — most notably Kareem Jackson — an issue that continues in the pros.
That’s why Milliner, like any other prospect, is not a safe pick. There’s no such thing as one.