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What’s that? Your Von Miller is evolving!

The Broncos’ star pass rusher is experimenting with his game. But why?

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Von Miller noted in an interview a while ago that he wants to play 10 lbs heavier this year than he did in 2018. I think it’s interesting to see Von experimenting with his playing weight, and that it’s something that’s worth digging into a little more deeply. Obviously, a player of his caliber doesn’t make a change like that casually. So what is the reason?My guess is that he’s doing it in order to figure out ahead of time how to extend his prime/career for as long as possible: To be as good as he can for as long as he can, even if that means evolving his game.

Why do I think that? It goes back to an episode of Joe Thomas’ Film Room from earlier this year. I highly recommend checking it out, as the former All Pro left tackle brings some excellent insight into the game.

During the session Thomas talks at length about how he countered Miller when he played against him in 2011, Von’s rookie year, and how other tackles copied the blueprint he gave them. Basically, he took advantage of the fact that Miller had tons of speed but little power. If the tackle could land a hard initial punch into his chest, Miller lacked the strength to keep from having his momentum killed by it. And that would delay him just long enough to let the QB get the ball out before Von could recover and get to him.

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

But then Thomas continues and outlines how Miller came back physically stronger in the 2012 season. Suddenly a good stiff initial punch didn’t derail him like it used to. The result? An 18.5 sack season and a 1st team All Pro selection for the Broncos linebacker. His game now more well-rounded, Miller’s Hall of Fame career was off to the races. It was the first of a number of tools he’s added to his repertoire since entering the NFL.

We’ve all heard the saying from basketball coach Tim Notke, “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.” But when talent works hard, it’s nearly unbeatable.

What does that have to do with Miller adding 10 lbs to his playing weight in 2019? Quite a lot, in my opinion.

Von Miller turned 30 back in March, and in the NFL that’s often considered a significant milestone. For many players, it’s assumed that their prime years are starting to draw to a close and the inevitable watch to see how they’ll age begins. But elite playmakers like Von sometimes figure out how to keep performing at a high level for years after their peers have declined or retired.

Elite- or in Miller’s case, practically unmatched- burst off the line and speed around the edge are Miller’s calling card. It’s literally his bread and butter, earning him a then historically-high second contract after Super Bowl 50. It’s also, unfortunately, relatively temporary. It’s an aspect of his game that may be the most likely to begin declining as he gets older. Though not immediately. Right now, Von’s still at the top of his game and showing no signs of slowing. But it’ll happen eventually.

And that’s why Miller has put more tools in his box than just speed.

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As Joe Thomas pointed out, Von was a student of the game even early in his career, making changes to his body and his play style in response to the challenges he faced. And if Miller was a student of the game then, he’s far more of one now. If or when his speed begins to drop off, he’s got a plan to have other abilities to rely on.

If you or I added 10 lbs in a year, it’s probably a sign that it’s time to suck it up & head to the gym. In Von’s case, though, I think there’s little doubt that it’s going to be 10 lbs of lean muscle. That means more power to push through blockers. So what I think we’re seeing here is Miller experimenting with a transition toward a more power-based game. For the moment he’s likely just seeing if he can maintain his speed while playing 10 lbs heavier & stronger, and I think he’ll likely quietly drop back toward his usual playing weight during the season.

But in 3, 4, or 5 years, I think we may see Von move his playing weight up 10-15 lbs on a more permanent basis and begin relying more on power combined with his deep repertoire of pass rush moves and the mind games a player at his level plays to fake out the blockers he faces. And we’ll still see occasional, carefully timed bursts of his trademark speed as well.

Los Angeles Rams v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

If that’s indeed what Miller is planning to do, it will be interesting to see how that transition translates into sack production. When he hits his mid-30s, it’s likely that his sack numbers will fall off somewhat from his usual 10-15 sack pace- that’s just a normal facet of any pass rusher’s career arc. But changing his play style in response to new challenges could help Miller keep that drop-off to a minimum. And an 8-12 sack version of Miller would still be an excellent player to have in his mid to late 30s. That production would be very doable as long as he avoids major injuries. And even something as remarkable as a 15+ sack season at or after age 35 is not unheard of for players of Von’s caliber.

Production x Longevity is the formula required to rise to the highest spots of the NFL’s career leaderboard. Von Miller already has the 2nd most sacks among active NFL players with 98.0, behind only Terrell Suggs who has 132.5 at age 36. Miller’s tally is also good enough for 33rd most since the NFL began tracking sacks in 1982. He only needs 40 more sacks to break into the top 10. From there he’d need just 11 more to replace Chris Doleman in the top 5, and an additional 9.5 to hit the top 3. If he plans for and makes smart changes that keep him productive for many years to come, Miller has a great shot of reaching those heights. Especially with Vic Fangio setting him up for success for the foreseeable future.

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