ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway gave a hint to his first draft pick as the front-office savior during the NFL combine in February.
Elway said he thought the draft prospects he’d have the best handle on would be pass-rushers and cornerbacks, more than quarterbacks and receivers, as we’d naturally think. The pass-rushers and cornerbacks were the players Elway studied the most during his 16-year NFL career.
During his career, the player Elway spent the most time trying to figure out was Kansas City Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas. No player gave Elway more trouble than Thomas. He sacked Elway 26 times, more than any other quarterback in his career.
Perhaps that’s why Elway was drawn to Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, whom Denver took with the No. 2 pick of the NFL draft Thursday. Miller has drawn strong comparisons to Thomas. Recently, Miller said he has modeled his life on and off the field after Thomas, who died in 2000 from complications sustained in an auto accident.
"I watched his film and studied his film,” Miller said. “I watched all his interviews, and the point of view he had on the game is similar to the way I feel … I could never, ever play like Derrick Thomas. But he played with a fanatical effort, a relentless effort, and that's what I try to do -- to play with that same attitude."
Thomas finished with 126.5 career sacks. Elway and the rest of the Denver brass, including new coach John Fox, who is a defensive specialist, are banking on Miller becoming that type of impact player in Denver.
It was clear the Broncos were going to go defense with the choice. The Broncos were last in the NFL in total defense, points allowed and explosive plays allowed in 2010. But the betting money wasn’t on Miller until the 36 hours prior to the draft. The focus was on Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who was considered perhaps the safest defensive pick available and he fit a big need for Denver.
But Miller will also fill a need for Denver, which is particularly weak on the front seven.
Even though Miller’s name didn’t get connected to Denver until this week, the team has long been on him. Denver’s brass had a private workout with him after his pro day and he visited Denver prior to the draft.
“He’s a big playmaker and a leader who is explosive,” Fox said shortly after the selection. “It’s crucial in this league to be able to rush the passer and Von adds that dimension to our defense. He’s also able to drop back into pass coverage. There’s no doubt that his versatility is going to make us a better football team.”
Fox is hoping he has the same luck with his first pick in Denver as he did in Carolina nine years ago. Fox took star pass-rusher Julius Peppers at No. 2 in 2002.
Elway told ESPN’s Ed Werder Wednesday that Miller was the most dynamic pass-rusher in a class full of outstanding pass-rushers. Denver was also mesmerized by Miller’s athleticism. Denver general manager Brian Xanders told Werder that the team did a computer analysis of Miller’s athletic measurables compared to the 64 current starting wide receivers and cornerbacks, and Miller rated out above average athletically.
He is 6-foot-2, 248 pounds and was one of the fastest defenders at the combine. Miller dominated the Senior Bowl in January. But this is no Vernon Gholston. Miller looks good on the field as well. Despite being hampered by an ankle injury for much of last season, Miller had 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season as he earned consensus All-America honors.
Denver envisions Miller playing on all four downs, including on special teams. Expect him to play strongside linebacker on first and second downs and play on the edge along with 2009 NFL sack leader Elvis Dumervil -- who missed all of 2010 with a pectoral injury -- on third down. That’s some pass-rushing juice.
Miller downplayed the fact that he is considered a better fit for 3-4 defenses. Fox is moving Denver from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. The Broncos agree that Miller is versatile enough to excel as a 4-3 strongside linebacker.
“It comes down to shedding blocks and making tackles,” Miller said. “I’m anxious to prove myself. I can show you better than I can tell you.”
If he looks like the great Derrick Thomas doing it, Elway will finally smile at that vision.