The comparison started before Von Miller played his first game in the NFL.
If you watched the two play, there’s no doubt why people saw it. Why they still do. There is an uncanny similarity between Miller and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. Their approach to the game, skill set and ability to sack the quarterback.
They even wear the same number.
As Bill Williamson wrote in April 2011, “Perhaps that’s why John 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 then of Thomas. “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."
When Miller took the field for the Broncos, you could see it was more than just the typical media hyperbole we get. The numbers started to back it up, and still do. Through his first five seasons, Miller is sixth in NFL history with 60 sacks. He trails only Reggie White, J.J. Watt, Thomas, DeMarcus Ware and Richard Dent.
Players with the most sacks through the first 5 seasons of their career. pic.twitter.com/sOAYc4wWzc— NFL (@NFL) July 15, 2016
Then Miller had one of the greatest defensive performances in NFL history with what he pulled in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50. That led him to the richest non-quarterback contract ever in the middle of July.
You would think at this point the comparison to Thomas might start to fizzle out. As of now, Miller’s name stands alone. Perhaps that’s why some believe Miller will have a down year, won’t be as motivated or play as hard.
That’s where the comparison to Thomas comes back. Not for the play on the field but the approach. To always remain one of the best.
As Miller told The Ringer in a fabulous feature that ran at the end of July, “In recent seasons, Miller has sat at the computer and watched every Thomas interview he could find, seeking to learn about the mindset of someone he so admired. Miller kept clicking until he found something that changed his perspective about his position, eventually stumbling upon Thomas discussing how he imagined that he played offense.
‘He felt like the offensive linemen were on defense and trying to stop him, as if he was a running back,’ Miller says. ‘And when he explained himself, I saw myself. I’ve never felt like I was going to stop the offense. The guys behind me are trying to stop all those guys. I’m trying to get after the quarterback.’”
For those who think Miller will have a “down year” after what he did in the playoffs and Super Bowl, coupled with getting that massive contract, no chance. He knows what’s in front of him. He knows he can become the best.
There’s also a little fact that Ware is still there to tell Miller he hasn’t accomplished a thing yet.
“I think Von is better right now than he was at this time last year,” Wade Phillips told the media on Monday. “He seems to be more comfortable in everything. He’s really focused. I’m really pleased where he is right now. That seemed to be where he was at the end of last year.
“Maybe it’s just the comfort in the defense, but I think he wanted to prove to everybody that maybe he’s the best player. Maybe he’s the defensive player of the year. He was the MVP in the Super Bowl, but I think his next goal is to be the Defensive Player of the Year.”
This season is not just about Miller but his defense. The Broncos have a chance to become the best defense in history if it leads the team to back-to-back Super Bowls. If that happens, make no mistake it will be because of the defense. The 1985 Chicago Bears never did that. Nor did the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2013 Seattle Seahawks.
Miller realizes how much influence he carries with the Broncos. He sees how much his teammates look up to him and what that means to the success of the team. By all accounts, Miller takes that role very seriously.
“You've got a whole new group of guys that come in, rookies, and they've got a different view on who they think I am,” he said. “They've never met me or been in the locker room or seen me practice, and they've got a different view than the guys that were here before, and they've got a different expectation of me. And I've got a new expectation for myself.
“It's just like whenever you coach somebody up and you see them go out there on the field and you see them do exactly what you taught them to do. It's a joy in that, and I really like the way that feels to coach guys, and it doesn't even have to be like a sack or anything like that. It could just be a basic run play -- use your hands here -- when you see some of these young guys do it and retain some of the information, it's enjoyable.
“It's a feeling that you get that it really doesn't compare to any other success that you get individually. Whenever you can help out somebody and help them grow, that's where all the fun is for me.”
All of that potential history and success is in front of Miller and his team and he knows it.
“Yeah, I'm taking it to a whole other level,” Miller said. “I would like to keep social media in the mix, but I haven't been on it as much, not just this week, but this whole training camp. It's just a different type of Von, just a different focus than I had last year. My role has changed from what it was last year, and I just want to be accountable to my coaching. It's not like I'm dropping everything but my focus is on Carolina.”
The comparison to Thomas was made before Miller even played in the NFL.
Five years later, Miller knows that connection is only the start. He can become even better.