The Arizona Cardinals concluded the NFL Draft in late April with excitement surrounding the possibility many of their selections could contribute and help build on the team's winning success early on in their careers.
Draft choices Robert Nkemdiche and Evan Boehm figure to start the 2016 season in the mix for considerable playing time, while others like Brandon Williams and Marqui Christian could carve out niche roles within the defense if they enjoy smoother learning curves.
One of the more intriguing storylines for the Cardinals' 2016 draft class is how the team's final selection, cornerback Harlan Miller, will fit into the team's plans. General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians stressed before the draft it would be difficult for late round selections to make the Cardinals' roster, but the team only has two cornerbacks with meaningful NFL experience.
Arizona needs depth at cornerback, and the organization is counting on Williams, the team's third round choice, to provide that. However, Williams has just one season of experience on the defensive side of the ball, as he converted to the secondary from running back in June of last year.
This is where things get interesting, and where a player like Miller becomes a potential fit for Arizona's defensive scheme.
While there's no doubt the franchise has high hopes for a player like Williams whose combination of size and speed gives him elite potential, Miller's experience, even at an FCS school like Southeastern Louisiana, could make him a more viable option for early playing time.
If all goes according to plan and Williams takes to nuances of the position well, Williams should surpass Miller on the depth chart. Yet early on, and before free agency settles down, it's anyone's guess who might fill the team's third cornerback spot behind Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel.
How Miller Fits
Miller has excellent natural traits for a cornerback, such as great reaction times and anticipation skills, an ability to sink his hips and re-direct without losing much speed, and strong footwork that helps put him in position to make plays on the ball against receivers. Still, the lingering question mark with Miller is whether or not he has the speed to keep up with NFL receivers.
Miller likely would have been drafted ahead of the sixth round if not for a 4.65 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine. The time on stopwatches was cause for concern for many teams, but the Cardinals probably elected to take a chance on Miller because his tape is strong and his resume speaks for itself.
At the Senior Bowl, Miller proved he could play against top wide receivers from FBS schools and earned defensive back of the week honors. This is a nice distinction, but it's important to remember Arians said after the draft this was a slower class of wide receivers, which could have played into Miller's success during the team's evaluation period.
An important factor to consider in how Miller fits with the Cardinals is whether or not Miller brings the type of versatility the Cardinals need cornerbacks to have to operate within the team's scheme.
After the organization selected Williams, Keim praised the Texas A&M product for having the athletic ability to play on the outside and on the inside against the slot. Keim said far too many corners are relegated to playing in the slot or strictly in nickel and dime packages because they don't have the foot speed to keep up with faster receivers on the perimeter.
Practice and preseason game repetitions will help the Cardinals decide what type of potential Miller has at the NFL level, but the team should know early on because it has a stable of receivers who run sub 4.5 40-yard dash times who will challenge Miller from the get-go in camp.
Before we break down what Miller will need to do to put himself in position to have success, it's important to consider how the Cardinals use their defensive backs throughout the course of a game. The team rarely puts three true cornerbacks on the field, and instead will often shift safety Tyrann Mathieu to cornerback when the team uses its nickel package. In these scenarios, an additional safety will come into the game, so the team's safety depth is actually a bit more critical than its cornerback depth.
With Mathieu coming off a knee injury, it's entirely plausible defensive coordinator James Bettcher will be conservative in asking Mathieu to step up and shadow receivers early on in the season. This is where Miller can make an impact, as he could join Peterson and Bethel on the field in nickel and dime packages if the team believes Miller is more capable than Williams earlier in the year.
For Miller to have success as an outside corner, maintaining his level of anticipation and play dissection abilities is essential. In the images below, we see how Miller reacts to a quick screen thrown on his side of the field.
In this image, Miller is playing with quite a bit of cushion (far more than the Cardinals typically give receivers) as he's about seven to eight yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap. Nevertheless, Miller reads the blocks ahead of him and darts up to make a stop a yard or two behind the line.
Though Miller's film is a bit blurry, he sheds blockers well and plays instinctual football. In a scenario where other college corners might sit back on their heels, Miller flies up to make a play and gives himself the leverage to deliver a blow knocking the receiver back a few yards.
With the Cardinals, Miller must be able to make plays based on quick reactions against the run and the pass, because every moment that passes without a clean key read will allow faster players to gain an advantage against him.
While Miller doesn't have as much experience in this regard, it's possible the Cardinals view him (and could use him) as a slot or nickel cornerback because he has strong ball skills and reads the sudden movements of receivers well. For many teams, slot receivers are the slowest of a trio of receivers on the field, and they are sometimes used as possession magnets who move the chains.
Miller played almost exclusively on the outside at Southeastern Louisiana, but he demonstrated skills that would make a transition to the slot less complicated than it may appear. Miller is fierce against the run, and wouldn't have a problem stepping up in the box to make tackles, and he also is technically sounds against slant routes and quick screens.
If the Cardinals opt to train Miller in the slot, he can continue to develop a knack for stepping into lanes and separating the ball from a receiver's grasp. Because Miller's film is blurry, we chose to use screenshots from a play Peterson made against the Chicago Bears that highlights the type of ability Miller has at reading a quarterback's eyes and breaking on the ball.
Though Peterson was aligned as an outside corner on this play, he defends an inside route which is something slot corners must excel at doing. In the image below, we see quite a bit of separation between Peterson and the receiver, before the receiver begins his break.
Even with the separation, Peterson has his eyes up in his backpedal, locking in on the receiver's hips and on the quarterback's eyes in front of him. This allows Peterson to anticipate the receiver's next movement, which is something Miller did well at Southeastern Louisiana and at the Senior Bowl. In the image below, we see that in a span of about one to two seconds, Peterson closed the gap and put himself in position to snag an interception.
We used those two screenshots because the skills Peterson demonstrated are similar to what Miller shows on film. Even when Miller is playing off a receiver, he has great spatial awareness and the wherewithal to recognize when passes are going to be thrown and how to put his hands in position to make a play.
The more we watch of Miller and the more we watch of the Cardinals', the more difficult it is to peg Miller as a prospect. We like Miller's instincts and think he could have been an outstanding cornerback at the FBS level, but with his speed and the Cardinals' reliance on defensive backs to provide the team with versatility, Miller may need to be comfortable taking on a role that emphasizes his special teams talents to make the cut.