His normal offseason hopscotching the country to attend sporting events and music festivals derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Von Miller stayed home … and worked.
He trained non-stop to improve his conditioning and add good weight to his 250-pound frame.
He studied frequently to gain a better understanding of Broncos coach Vic Fangio’s scheme and how all of the players fit.
And he spent myriad hours administering a self-scout, concluding he needs to be a better leader.
“I may be 31 years old and in Year 10, but it’s never too late to change,” Miller said.
Miller’s objective is to change the narrative entering Monday night’s opener against Tennessee. End the chatter he has reached his peak and is beginning to decline. Squash the speculation he is in his final year with the Broncos. And halt the franchise’s four-year playoff drought.
He wants The New Von to be like The Old Von, the player who had at least 10 sacks in his first eight full seasons, made the 2010s All-Decade Team and was a three-time first-team All-Pro — and not the one who had only eight sacks in 2019.
Miller knows the deal — he must be better. And just as importantly, he knows the financials — he makes a lot of money.
Get back to double-digit sack territory and Miller and the Broncos could agree to an extended contract that equal parts lowers his 2021 cap charge ($22.125 million) and takes him into his mid-30s, making it likely he will be a one-franchise player.
Struggle to get out of the blocks early and the last position player from the Broncos’ 2015 title team could be on his way out, creating nearly $14 million in cap space, money that can allocated toward Bradley Chubb’s next contract.
Chubb’s health — last September’s ACL tear may limit his playing time early — will put an even bigger onus on Miller. Last year, he didn’t have a sack in the first three games (all losses). Last year, he failed to reach double-digit sacks for the first time in a full season. Last year, 32 players had more sacks.
Settling into the season is not an option. Miller must be The Old Von from the hop. If camp is an indication, Broncos fans should be optimistic about No. 58. He missed only two practices (elbow injury and day off). He was vocal. And he looked sharp.
“He’s going to have a monster year,” Chubb said. “He’s the most motivated I’ve seen.”
Chasing the greats
Miller’s 106 regular-season sacks are tied for 25th-most in NFL history since the statistic became official in 1982. Of the 24 players ahead of him, 11 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Six others — Julius Peppers (159 1/2 sacks), Terrell Suggs (139), DeMarcus Ware (138 1/2), Jared Allen (136), Dwight Freeney (125 1/2) and Robert Mathis (123) — aren’t yet eligible.
Heady company for Miller, whose production has him trending toward Canton five years after his retirement. He is a player who cares about his legacy and place in the game’s annuals, so he also knows his work isn’t done.
Miller needs 32 sacks to climb into the top 10 and 45 to reach the top five — both would guarantee Hall of Fame induction.
A return to double-digit sacks is the only way for Miller to catch the players ahead of him.
The top five players in sacks all produced well into their 30s. During their age-31 seasons, Bruce Smith (10), Reggie White (14), Kevin Greene (12 1/2) and Julius Peppers (11) remained in their prime. On the flip side is Ware, who had only six sacks in 13 games for Dallas in 2013, was released and signed with the Broncos.
To keep statistical pace, Miller dedicated himself this offseason to getting into better shape.
“I just feel like my conditioning is a whole lot better,” he said. “Usually, I have to conserve my energy coming off the field. Now I’m able to talk to guys, motivate guys and have some excitement on the sideline. Usually, I’m straight to the oxygen tank.
“It feels good to be able to run around and talk rather than just spending all of my time catching my breath.”
Said Fangio: “He’s worked hard to get his body to where he wants it to get and where he feels he needs it to be. I think it’s shown dividends already (in camp).”
In every year since 2014, Miller has played at least 76.2% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps — including 84.2% in ’14 and 85.7% in ’17. He has played at least 835 snaps in each of the last seven years.
Might a fitter Miller lead to more playing time and a return to the 80% range?
“I think he can,” Fangio said. “A lot of times, that’s determined by what type of game it is, too. If it’s a game when you’re getting a lot of pass rushing, that will tend to tire you a little bit more. If it’s more of a balanced game with a good mix of runs and passes, he could probably play more. There are a lot of factors that can determine the final amount.”
Miller is working this year with new outside linebackers coach John Pagano, who spent 15 years on the Chargers’ staff. While coaching San Diego’s linebackers from 2007-11 and coordinating the defense from 2012-16, Pagano broke down Miller’s game during the offseason and saw first-hand from the opposite sideline how he could ruin a game.
“Me being in the AFC West for most of my career and playing the Broncos twice a year, you see Von and study what he’s doing in his rush game and use the examples of his unbelievable get-off, speed off the edge, ability to dip, body control,” Pagano said in a phone interview.
Miller’s commitment to leadership and openness to new techniques and ideas was on display for Pagano when the outside linebackers began their virtual offseason.
“All the great ones, I’ve learned a long time ago, they want to be coached,” said Pagano, who has coached Khalil Mack, Shawne Merriman and Jadeveon Clowney. “Von asks questions all the time and wants to know and learn and that’s good for all of our guys.”
Miller understands he can lead with his words, but it’s just as crucial he lead by example. Chiefly, make plays to avoid a repeat of last year’s 0-4 start. Miller had one quarterback pressure in the first three games and four sacks in the first 10.
Sure, the flashes were there — a sack in 2.46 seconds against Jacksonville, three knockdowns against Tennessee, two knockdowns and disruptions apiece at Houston and 3 1/2 disruptions (including one sack) against the Raiders. But the consistency was lacking.
Add it all up — a down 2019, a long playoff absence, his contract, his legacy — and that’s why Miller took advantage of being able to do nothing but football in the offseason.
“He’s going out there and practicing hard and leading by example and demonstrating hard work and technique,” defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said during camp. “He’s kind of refocused in those areas. … Everything’s positive.”