With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#9: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
We continue this year's series with Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, who seemed destined to succeed for the Crimson Tide from the day he arrived on campus. Regarded by many as the best high-school cornerback in the country, Milliner took the two-hour trip from Millbrook to Tuscaloosa and started 11 games as a true freshman for Nick Saban's defense in 2010. In that first season, he racked up 41 solo tackles, eight passes defensed and an interception. He was featured more as a nickel and dime defender behind Dre Kirkpatrick and Dequan Menzie in 2011, but still managed three picks (one for a touchdown), and 11 pass breakups.
But when Kirkpatrick and Menzie left for the NFL after the 2011 season, it set Milliner up to shine in 2012 -- and that's exactly what he did. Arguably the best player on the nation's best defense, Milliner firmly established his stock as the best overall cornerback in the 2013 draft class with a season in which he not only starred statistically (34 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, 22 passes defensed), but set the tone for the Tide's efficient and physical defense.
He did this despite a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery and affected his performance at the scouting combine to a degree -- though he turned some heads with an official 4.37 40-yard dash (the second-fastest among defensive backs, behind Mississippi State's Darius Slay), he looked slightly wooden in positional drills, especially in backpedal drills. That's when people starting talking about the fact that Milliner didn't really employ a backpedal at Alabama, because Nick Saban didn't really teach it.
In addition, Milliner's medical history has become more of a concern. ESPN's Chris Mortensen recently reported that in addition to the torn labrum that made news, Milliner has also had a rod inserted in his tibia, a knee scope, and a hernia surgery. There's also a belief that Milliner might not be ready to go through full participation in off-season activities with the team that drafts him. However, suddenly exposed red flags are common late in the pre-draft process, and when you watch Milliner's tape, it's hard not to like what you see, especially if you're in need of a cornerback who can do just about everything at a very high level.
Pros: Physical press cornerback with good size (6-foot-0, 201 pounds) who plays receivers aggressively but intelligently at the line and trails his targets downfield. Adapts for lack of backpedal by playing angles well and dropping quickly into coverage. Very adept and field-aware when playing off-coverage -- keeps his eyes on progressions and reads the action as it develops. Violent and accurate tackler who understands how to close, and wraps up well. Reads quarterback progressions while covering and has the speed to make plays away from his spot.
Outstanding run blitzer who screams into the backfield with authority -- could also be a very effective pass-blitzing defender. Fearless in power situations -- absolutely loves to come up and play the run. On vertical routes, establishes inside position with outstanding footwork and trails the boundary. Times jump balls for the interception. Not a route-jumper per se, but sticks to his man well and knows when to work for the deflection. Plays run fits and excels as a force defender as long as he doesn't have to take on a lot of blocks -- has a safety mentality at times, in a good way.
Cons: Milliner will need to develop a backpedal in the NFL -- you can see the effect of the lack of a functional backpedal when he loses to bigger receivers inside on angular routes, and the margin for error is reduced. Less than optimal recovery speed. Lacks the extra gear some speed cornerbacks have, though he plays fast enough to be very effective in most situations. Will get caught flat-footed at times between two receivers -- over-reads at times and can get fooled in certain combo situations. Medical history is cause for considerable concern, especially as his physical style is such a crucial part of his play.
Conclusion: I don't think there's any question that Milliner will be selected in the top 10 of the draft -- though there's a bit of "buyer beware" in his overall report, there's also a great deal of positional versatility, and Milliner combines an excellent fundamental knowledge of the game with an exciting and physical playing style. There are cornerbacks who are separately faster, bigger, and better against the pass in this class, but none of them bring the full-scale skill set Milliner does.