MOBILE, Ala. — Braxton Miller already has the swagger of a No. 1 receiver.
At Senior Bowl practices last month, the Ohio State quarterback-turned-receiver talked trash back and forth with the North’s defensive backs, celebrated a little after big plays, even shoved one cornerback after catching a touchdown pass in red zone drills.
Miller is out to convince NFL teams his play backs up that swagger. One of the breakout stars of Senior Bowl week — Miller was named Practice Player of the Week in Mobile — Miller has to keep that momentum rolling. Despite his lack of experience at receiver, Miller thinks he can be a No. 1 target at the next level.
“When you’re on the outside, it’s one on one,” Miller said. “The best wideout gets the best DB they’ve got out there. I want to be the best player on the outside; I already know I can play on the inside.”
Miller’s transition wasn’t easy in the fall. Coming off of a season lost to a torn labrum in his shoulder, Miller competed for the starting quarterback job at Ohio State through the spring, only to shift to wide receiver in the summer. Then he spent training camp trying to get into shape.
Miller was used to carrying 215 to 220 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame as a quarterback, playing heavy in order to absorb a pounding.
But the first time he tried to do the wide receiver’s conditioning drills, his legs failed him.
“In camp, I strained both my hamstrings, and I knew something wasn’t right,” Miller said. “I made a transition to change my diet before the Virginia Tech game, and I shed a lot of pounds and body fat.”
Miller dropped to 204 pounds and 3-4 percent body fat, but the lost time left him in a complementary role at Ohio State. Used as an H-back and a slot receiver, Miller finished third on the Buckeyes with 26 catches for 341 yards and three touchdowns, a solid debut at receiver, but nothing that made NFL evaluators stop and take notice.
Everything changed at the Senior Bowl.
Miller showed elite change of direction and explosion out of breaks, repeatedly leaving corners stuck in mid-backpedal as he made his break on the ball. Miller is still raw; too many of his routes in Mobile took far too long to develop as he tried a series of moves to confuse the defender.
But it’s clear the natural skills are there.
“The strides he’s made. ... We’re coaching these guys hard, and it’s good to see how well he’s responded,” said Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose staff coached the North squad. “Clearly a great athlete and a productive football player and someone that has a lot of upside.”
Miller said he thinks his background as a quarterback can help him make the same transition that Green Bay’s Randall Cobb and New England’s Julian Edelman, both former college quarterbacks, have been able to make. A lot like Cobb, Miller can be used both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, and he already knows how to read coverages for the soft spots in the zone, a key for teams like the New Orleans Saints that ask their receivers to adjust their routes based on how the defense is playing.
“I can see a blitz coming before any other receiver,” Miller said. “The way they line up, the way the defensive front lines up, if the linebacker’s trying to cheat to one side, independently. I know based on the quarterback’s read, the play might come my way, or the coverage might rotate my way, so I can help out the quarterback. If the quarterback has any trouble knowing if it’s hot or not, I can signal back to him, the route’s hot.”
Miller will get a chance to show off that knowledge in Indianapolis, but he’ll also get a chance to prove his athleticism. A freak athlete, Miller said he thinks he can run the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range, a number that would help convince teams he can be more than just a target out of the slot. Miller might be trying to follow in Cobb and Edelman’s footsteps, but the receivers he’d like to join are all in the NFL’s top tier: He watches Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown regularly.
“From now on, I’m a receiver,” Miller said. “That’s how I think now, and all I want to do is be the best I can possibly be.”