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NFL Draft

Year 3 Breakout WR: What’s Holding Anthony Miller Back?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 23, 2020
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The 2018 wide receiver class was known as a thick, but starless group at the time of its drafting. Two years in, it’s definitely thick, but stars are beginning to emerge. All of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore, and Michael Gallup have an argument not only as the top dog in the class but as upper-echelon receivers in the league altogether. I made the case for Gallup most recently—as his success seems the most underappreciated to me—but all four are great talents, and they aren’t alone. D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, and James Washington fill out the top of a thick second tier.

Earlier this week, I focused on New Orleans Saints’ WR Tre’Quan Smith, who has failed to impress as a third-round pick vying for the empty spot opposite Michael Thomas on the Saints’ thin depth chart. There’s room for a resurgence with Smith, just as there is with Chicago Bears’ receiver Anthony Miller, who has also disappointed relative to the expectations for the second-round selection the Bears traded up to go get.

It is important to immediately calibrate to context with Miller. Miller was drafted to start in the slot with Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson on a much-ballyhooed Chicago offense looking for explosive plays under new head coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Miller wasn’t a knockout for the Bears, but he did have seven touchdowns on 33 receptions for 423 yards while battling intermittent shoulder issues. Overall, the Bears offense in 2018 wasn’t the instant sensation that many hoped for, and Miller was a part of that struggle, as he reflected on the issues he had in his first NFL campaign at managing his schedule, prioritizing rehab and studying, and keeping your head on your shoulders. 

Come 2019, and while the habits may have been better, there were still issues with the on-field product. A drop on an end-around, an incorrect release on a deep route, the wrong landmark on a curl, and the celebration penalties pepper what look to be promising stretches of a permanent breakthrough. This past season, Miller had one more game with at least 50 receiving yards (7) than he did games with 10 or fewer yards (6). He had his best stretch Weeks 10-15 before dropping a dud against the Chiefs in Week 16 and leaving Week 17 with further shoulder issues. Two steps forward, one step back. 

But everything around him took steps backward as well. Trubisky’s 2018 play deteriorated into fear-riddled and inaccurate 2019 quarterbacking, as Nagy’s questionable play-calling and spread offense was criticized for its cuteness and simplicity. The offensive line dealt with injuries, the running game missed Jordan Howard, and the Bears gave snaps to about 17 different tight ends. 

Perhaps Miller’s habits have had a deleterious effect on his development, but his situation hasn’t helped either. As such, a film watch on Miller is generally forgiving, though he remains an incomplete player who may never develop further if he doesn’t get into a more advantageous situation.

Miller is a pretty nifty separator, as it stands now. While he never tested in Indianapolis, MIller’s Pro Day put him at a 39-inch vertical jump, 4.26 short shuttle, and stunning 6.65 3-cone at just over 200 pounds. Miller is regularly used on sits, deep curls, and particularly, quick outs, given how well he manages his speed and body positioning, and how strong he is accelerating out of his cuts.

https://youtu.be/Q2JjvsaZ1EY

These are easy wins for Miller out of the slot. Miller was 13th in the NFL in slot snaps last season, and saw 1.56 yards/route run in the slot, which was ranked around players like Jamison Crowder, Golden Tate, Danny Amendola, and Cole Beasley, as prototypical slot machines in the short areas of the field. Trubisky showed a lot of trust with Miller on some of the tight window and timing throws Miller ran in the slot, and his dedication to the timing and rules of those routes is a good signal for his playbook understanding.

When things get deeper for Miller, they get murkier. Miller’s best deep routes come when he’s able to work deep overs, corners, and other bending routes. Here, he can immediately win leverage off the line against man and use his excellent acceleration to win out of the break point, or cross face against zone coverage and explode into an open window. 

https://youtu.be/CuKztJRhRIU

But on true vertical routes, Miller struggled to get on the same page with Trubisky all season. Again working from the slot, Miller worked this seam route multiple times in 2019. On the first rep, Miller’s responsible for releasing outside the cornerback and then climbing vertically. Instead, he releases inside, putting him far from the eventual arc of Trubisky’s throw. On the second rep, he gets a free release, but is late adjusting to Trubisky’s back-shoulder throw, which leaves room for the incompletion.

https://youtu.be/kA6wFvsVMHo

Now, there’s fault on Miller’s shoulders for both plays, but there’s fault on Trubisky and Nagy’s shoulders as well. This is where you wonder to what degree poor quarterback play or poor offensive design are negatively affecting Miller’s growth, as he works to learn the landmarks and rhythm of this concept. A better quarterback is able to complete the pass on both of these open routes by adjusting his mental construct of the play to the evident adjustments made by Miller on the fly. That is to say, Miller is wrong to work inside of the corner on the New Orleans rep, but a system with more freedom would perhaps allow him to sight-adjust the route against an outside leveraged defender, and a better quarterback would throw a catchable ball. On the Rams route, again, Miller doesn’t seem to anticipate that Trubisky is going to try to throw this ball on a line, as he doesn’t decelerate his route, and Trubisky throws a defender into the play with his ball placement. 

We can’t know exactly how much blame belongs on which shoulders, but it’s enough to say that Miller runs routes well enough that he should be more productive to all three levels of the field, not just as a quality slot machine. 17.3% of Miller’s total targets went deep in 2019, which was in the bottom third among receivers in the league, despite the fact that he hauled in 50% of such passes. The only reason he can’t expand his profile as a deep receiver is if the quarterback throwing him the football isn’t trusted to go deep that often.

Of course, Miller will always be better as a separator on breaking routes than a deep separator on a straight line. Miller was often protected from press coverage by his slot alignment, and has a smaller frame with a suboptimal catch radius, which puts him at a disadvantage on over-the-shoulder deep balls or late adjustments in tight windows. He’s at his best catching the football when his hips are facing the line of scrimmage, which is the hallmark of a slot receiver.

https://youtu.be/XTmYMkp492o

And again, Miller is an incomplete player at the position because, while he gets plenty of underneath opportunities on his shallow-breakers and swing patterns, he isn’t particularly impressive as a YAC option. Miller struggles to break tackles and often slides out of bounds before contact comes, which may be a remnant concern from his shoulder issues in the last two seasons. His YAC over expectation comes in at -0.8 from NFL’s Next Gen Stats. This does not keep him from occupying the same mold that such players as Amendola (-0.5), Crowder (0), and Beasley (0.1), so long as he gets just to a league-average level.

Plainly, it would be nice to see Miller in a different offense with a different quarterback. He’d potentially see more reps as an outside receiver and a more diverse tree of deep routes accordingly—and projects as a good option at Z receiver that has the necessary zip and quicks to release against tight man coverage. Even in a similar role as he currently has, Miller would be more productive if he had a veteran quarterback who not only was able to help him through some of his mental errors against coverage, but also adjust to his looser play style and “make him right” as the situation demands it.

The Bears drafted Miller to be a 1,000-yard receiver, and in his third season, he now gets clear No. 2 treatment following the departure of Taylor Gabriel and the momentum of that strong final stretch to end the season. This is the chance. But development is an uphill slough through rough terrain for Miller if Trubisky remains the starter in Chicago, and Nick Foles isn’t that much prettier an option. Fans of Miller from his time at Memphis should root for teams who could use a slot separator, like San Francisco (who lost Emmanuel Sanders to free agency and Deebo Samuel to injury) and Los Angeles (Chargers), to make a call if Miller’s third season begins quietly.

Fans of Chicago, however, have to hope that Miller can pull together some of the promising, flickering fragments of high-quality play from 2019. With another season under his belt and mistakes behind him, Miller—who is, by all accounts, a determined and confident player who stepped up well in response to the midseason criticism and Gabriel injury—just needs a bit more rapport and trust with his quarterback to open up his vertical game, and a few more broken tackles underneath to ramp up his production. He’s right there. It’s all about a final push now.

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