DENVER -- It was weeks into John Elway’s new role in his old home and he was explaining how he could best help the Denver Broncos take advantage of having the No. 2 overall draft pick.
While taking a break from scouting players at the NFL Combine, the legendary quarterback stood in an Indianapolis hotel and said he thought he knew how to evaluate pass-rushers as well as any position on the field (quarterback and receiver included) because those were the players he spent all his time studying to beat.
There was no pass-rusher –- or any player regardless of position -– available in the 2011 draft who would have worried Elway the quarterback more than Von Miller. That's why Elway, the lead decision maker of the Broncos, jumped at the opportunity to make Miller the centerpiece of his organization -- a team that no longer resembles the perennial contender of Elway’s heyday.
As the Elway-John Fox era officially begins when the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders in the second half of an ESPN “Monday Night Football” doubleheader (kickoff is set for 10:15 ET), all eyes will be on No. 58. Miller picked the number of his hero, the late Derrick Thomas. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Hall of Fame linebacker sacked Elway 26 times, the most of any player in Elway's career. This time, though, Elway won’t mind seeing that No. 58 drop the quarterback.
Elway -- who was hired by owner and close friend Pat Bowlen to bring stability to an organization that fired two head coaches in less than a two-year span -- is trying to fix the defense that was ranked last in the NFL last season and had a league-low 23 sacks in 2010. A team that is usually focused on offense hired Fox, one of the more respected defensive specialists in the NFL.
The Broncos zeroed in on several defensive players, including Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Auburn’s Nick Fairley. But in the team’s meetings, everything pointed to drafting Miller.
Denver concluded that Miller was the most sure of all the prospects. He starred on the field at Texas A&M. He had strong character. He stole the show during the Senior Bowl week. He blew away scouts at the combine with his size, speed and power. Elway told people his explosiveness was off the charts. And the Broncos marveled that someone could run like a cornerback while being built like a prototypical pass-rusher.
On the eve of the regular season, the Broncos are not regretting the pick. Big things are expected from Miller, including by ESPN’s panel of experts.
During training camp, I asked Fox about Miller’s development. He gave the typical coach party line that Miller was a work in progress. Then, I asked whether Miler’s ability was as advertised. Fox didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah, he’s going to be a player,” Fox said.
Miller dominated the preseason. He had three sacks in limited action. He knocked down Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson four times in the third preseason game. Denver believes the pass-rush combination of defensive end Elvis Dumervil (who led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 before missing all of last season with a pectoral injury) and Miller will immediately improve the defense.
If the Broncos have any chance of beating the Raiders -- who won 59-14 in Denver last season -- Dumervil and Miller have to knock Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell onto the Mile High ground a few times.
Miller knows what is expected of him in Denver. He is not shying away from the task of changing the defensive atmosphere in Denver.
“I’ve been ready since a few weeks ago,” Miller said earlier this week. “Every week is game week for me, but these are the ones that are really going to count and you can definitely feel it in practice. It’s a little more tense.”
Miller, known for being a team-oriented player in College Station, has impressed the Broncos by acting like an undrafted free agent. He studies the playbook diligently and doesn’t act like he's already arrived. He is bent on fixing mistakes.
“Every week I have to take a step to get better and that is what I have been trying to do,” Miller said. “I feel as if there is still a lot of room to improve. I need to improve my practice habits. I could run a little bit better in the games and get my assignments down. I can get my assignments down; you can’t have a guy out there who is inconsistent. That is one of the things I’m working on now, getting my plays down and being there for my team in crunch time.”
Crunch time begins Monday night, as does a new defensive era in Denver.
“I like him a lot,” future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey said. “You can see every day why he was the No. 2 pick. I’m glad he’s the guy we took.”