Senior Bowl Day 3: Braxton Miller exceeding all expectations at WR
MOBILE, Ala. — One-on-one drills at the goal line. Braxton Miller vs. Minnesota cornerback Eric Murray, a player Miller had singled out Wednesday for being a difficult and extremely aggressive defender. Miller takes three steps toward the goal line, plants, fakes a move outside and then cuts on a dime back inside and leaves Murray frozen. The ball meets Miller, who snags it as he tumbles to the ground and loses his helmet, Murray recovering to tackle him from behind.
Miller leaps up and lets Murray hear about it, jawing aggressively enough that a Cowboys’ coach has to step between the two. On Miller’s next rep, he does the same to Northern Iowa cornerback Deiondre’ Hall, among the Senior Bowl stars here. Quick burst forward, double move, defender turned to dust. Miller and Hall exchange words, too, Hall seemingly livid that Miller had worked him over.
A quarterback playing receiver doesn't make those catches. Few of the other receivers here—maybe none—could have pulled them off with the same level of blistering footwork.
Miller has asserted himself time and again this week as a standout at receiver, and not in a gimmicky way or with a “not bad for a position change” undertone. He legitimately has been the most impressive receiver in Mobile and arguably the best player, period. As a result, the conversations about him have changed. Forget for now the possibility that he'll fall to the mid-rounds. The Ohio State product is on track to be off the board long before that.
I polled a few different Senior Bowl attendees, ranging from media to scouts, about Miller’s current stock. The general consensus: Don’t be surprised if Miller hears his name called late in Round 1; by Round 2, he could become a bargain.
“He's not a project,” Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting told me. That sentiment was echoed almost verbatim by an NFL scout, who added, “He's been better than I expected.”
Miller is still working through the intricacies of playing receiver, and there are a few misfires as a result—during one stretch Wednesday, he was chided by a Team North assistant for not getting his head turned around quickly enough and then let a ball sail through his hands due to the same issue.
But his quickness is eye-popping, especially when he can get clear of the line to pull off those double moves Murray and Hall saw first-hand. He has speed to burn downfield, plus the vision to take advantage of it with the ball. All of those positives he flashed as a runner for Ohio State, be it at QB or out of a specialized package this past season, still show up at receiver.
The Cowboys’ coaching staff, which has the North team reins this week, has given the NFL contingent in attendance plenty to track. Miller has lined up outside and in the slot, has been utilized on jet sweeps, handled punt returns and even took reps covering kicks.
“I’ve been doing what I really wanted to do,” Miller said of his week. “I wanted to come to the Senior Bowl and show what has been missing on film. That's a big part of my transition to receiver. I can move inside, outside, go against man coverage ... just be aggressive.”
The return-game element is a new addition to Miller’s repertoire. Not surprisingly, he seemed comfortable there, as well.
“You take an athlete and put him back there and see what he can do,” Cowboys assistant special teams coach Keith O’Quinn said. "He’s obviously one of those athletic guys that has some of that shake to him, so he's a guy to investigate to see ... you know, is it natural to him? Can he get it? Can he get it with some reps? He's got great hands, he's athletic and he's got some wiggle in space."
How high he ultimately climbs in the draft will depend, in part, on how many teams see him exclusively as a receiver—likely in the slot—and how many believe he can be a do-everything playmaker. SI’s Andy Staples wrote this week that Miller has been studying Randall Cobb, the Packers’ receiver who more fits that Swiss Army Knife sort of roll. Miller (6'1", 203 pounds at Tuesday’s weigh-in) has two inches and more than a dozen pounds on Cobb’s combine measurements from 2011; Cobb was drafted No. 64 overall.
When I asked former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman where he thought Miller would land, he answered, “Hopefully with a team that knows how to use him.”
That’s the trick with every draft prospect: Will his new coaching staff be able to get the most of his skills? It can be more important for a potentially piece like Miller than with others. For a team willing to experiment with his role, the payoff could be immense, as it has been for Cobb in Green Bay. (The Packers could be more aggressive with Cobb, truth be told.)
Aside from sheer inexperience as a receiver, the one negative on Miller’s scouting report mentioned by multiple people was his health. A shoulder issue famously led to J.T. Barrett’s and then Cardale Jones’s emergence from Ohio State, and later to Miller’s transition to receiver. He also sprained his knee back in 2013.
The calf cramp that knocked him from Thursday’s practice early was not serious—he will play Saturday—but any scouts already a little wary of his durability no doubt took notice.
His medicals may be the only hurdle now between Miller and a top-40 or 50 selection. In particular, team doctors will closely examine his right shoulder, which is now about a year and a half removed from a torn labrum. Such an injury would have been more problematic for Miller as a QB, but it still could cause significant problems as a wide receiver.
Miller is now a receiver through and through. He could be a late-Round 1 selection, too, if he can carry his Mobile momentum into the next three months.
Notes from the third day of Senior Bowl practices:
• The quarterbacks as a whole put on a better show on Thursday, and maybe that’s due to the much better weather—sunny and near 60 as opposed to Wednesday’s 45 and windy. That’s not to say anyone was great, including North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, but there were flashes from just about every QB.
Of them, Cody Kessler, Dak Prescott and Jacoby Brissett looked the most consistent (or should I say the least inconsistent?) Prescott was able to show off his legs on a zone read of two, while Brissett also took off for a touchdown during a full 11-on-11 drill.
• I tried to focus some of my attention on Southern Utah’s Miles Killbrew today, another small-school defensive back with exceptional upside. He didn’t necessarily make a ton of plays, but he moves really well all over the field, including from the deep safety spot. Killebrew also was vocal pre-snap, getting his teammates into the right calls—an important note for a player at his position. He’s legit.
• Best quote contender this week comes from Reggie Ragland, who weighed in at 259, about 10 pounds higher than he says he wants to be come combine time: “I gave myself a little time after the championship ... and I ate a little too much.”
Ragland was playing outside linebacker this week, by his request—he wanted to show off his coverage chops. South coach Gus Bradley said Ragland did a solid job. I’d probably describe his week as rather quiet to this point: he wasn’t bad, he wasn’t great. He’s still better playing inside and at his usual weight.
• Sheldon Day won some folks over this week. He’s sort of an odd size, at 6’0” and 286. That's around Aaron Donald range (6’1”, 285 at the combine), but Day actually seems headed toward a career at DE, at least to start. He was excellent off the edge Thursday, chasing down one of the North QBs on a waggle and winning several one-on-one drill battles with Indiana’s Jason Spriggs. Day showed off a nifty spin move vs. Spriggs, setting him up wide and then getting back to the inside.
• Speaking of Spriggs, the North’s starting offensive line looks like it will be (left to right): Spriggs, Joshua Garnett, Nick Martin, Joe Dahl and Kyle Murphy. Two things there: a) Martin is back at center, where he says he'd prefer to play, despite being listed as a guard headed into the week; b) Garnett is an absolute wrecking ball. He's got a very real chance to be the first interior lineman off the board.
• Killebrew is the North safety most likely to rise. For the South, it's probably going to be Middle Tennessee State's Kevin Byard. Very active and aggressive week from him. Keep an eye on him when Saturday's game rolls around.
• Two cornerbacks I was pleasantly surprised by: Southeast Louisiana’s Harlan Miller and Temple’s Tavon Young. I didn't come into the week with a ton of Miller exposure, but he is a DB it’s easy to like live. He’s lanky (6’0”, 182) but still plays with his body and finds the ball well.
Young (5’9”) was in the grill of the North's receivers all week, driving downhill to break up passes on numerous occasions. His size points to a career manning the slot.
• Not that anyone asked, but a game pick: North 24, South 21. The main reason I give the North the edge is that its offensive line looks a lot better. Given the amount of D-line talent here, the South could have some issues up front, even though teams have to play four-man fronts and cannot blitz.