In 2010, Dee Milliner did something that neither Kareem Jackson, Mark Barron, nor Dre Kirkpatrick--all Alabama defensive backs who went in the first round--could do. He started in Nick Saban's defensive backfield as a true freshman.
He turned in 55 tackles, one interception and seven pass breakups that year on his way to being named to the first-string Freshman All-SEC team. In 2011, Milliner was not a starter--not officially, that is. But he showed that the tag "starter" sometimes doesn't have much meaning, as he was on the field most of the time: his three picks and nine breakups were both improvements on his stats from the previous year when he was a "starter."Milliner was a pre-season All-American in 2012, partially based on the above stats but probably just as much based on the respect given to Saban's defensive backs: if he was Alabama's best DB, he had to be an All-American, right? Although some might have argued before the season started that Milliner didn't deserve those kinds of accolades, it was hard to maintain that position for long.
It was obvious almost from the start that Milliner had found a way during the off-season between the 2011 and 2012 campaigns to take his game to the next level. Michigan and Denard Robinson learned that the hard way in the season's opening battle, as Michigan's gameplan to take it to Milliner was clearly a mystifyingly bad idea. Dee broke up four passes and intercepted another, and was off to the races.
For the season, Milliner broke up an astounding 22 passes. There's an official NCAA definition for the pass breakup stat, but you wouldn't know it from watching the stat applied in widely different ways in different places. If you try to reduce variation by just gathering stats from a single location, there is still a rich basis for comparison on that score at Alabama, where no less than five defensive backs--Rashad Johnson, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick--have been drafted in the first or second round in Saban's six years as head coach. In those six years, no other player recorded more than 18 breakups at Alabama, and only three players had more than 14.
It's not a coincidence that Milliner left the others behind. Dee has good size for a cornerback, at 6'0", 201, and with 32" arms. He turned in an excellent 4.37 official time at the Combine, and has a burst that gives him superior closing speed when the ball is in the air. Even better, Milliner almost invariably manages to turn his head and locate the ball, giving him a chance to use that closing speed. He also has the strength to prevent physical receivers from stealing passes. Together, his speed, burst, length and technique constitute the complete package for breaking up passes.
If there's a knock on Milliner's play, it's his tackling, but it's really not much of a knock. Tackling isn't his strong suit, but he is by no means one of those skinny little june-bugs of a cornerback who can't bring a man down. In fact he has been known to shiver a few timbers on running plays, and you don't want to tangle with him on a crossing route.
Where's He Going?
There is no question at all as to whether Milliner will go in the first round: he will. The only question is whether he will be drafted higher than Mark Barron, who went as the seventh pick in last year's draft, to become the highest-drafted Alabama defensive back ever.
The analysts have unanimously been answering that question with "yes," but a story has emerged this week that may change things. Several media outlets have run with a "news flash" about Milliner's five surgeries at Alabama, including sports hernia surgery, a right knee scope, surgery to implant a rod for a right tibia stress fracture, and surgeries on both shoulders. Several analysts have dropped him a few spots down the charts as a result.
It's an open question as to whether that story will actually play out in the draft. For one thing, the news isn't really news: none of Milliner's surgeries were secret, so any GM who freaked out over it hasn't been doing his homework. On a more fundamental basis, whether a guy's draft stock is affected by a story like that tends to be a matter of luck, as some GMs tend to blow with the media wind while some don't. If the team that's looking for a cornerback early happens to have one of those GMs who ignores late-breaking stories, Milliner could go very high. Some have had him as high as second, and there had been a consensus before this story broke that Dee wouldn't make it past the Browns at #6.
My own opinion is that Milliner is a top-five talent. Depending on whether you give me credit for a little drive-by watching a long time ago, this is either my 51st or 52nd year following Alabama football. I consider Dee Milliner to be the best defensive back I have ever seen play for the Tide. My money says that he will be a perennial Pro Bowler if he stays healthy.