July 23, 2014

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NFL draft: Most agree Dee Milliner is top cornerback, but criticism still flows

Dee Milliner has been picked on lately.

Milliner

That’s unfamiliar territory for the All-American cornerback from Alabama. And Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban doesn’t like it.

“There’s a lot of misinformation,” Saban told The Chronicle-Telegram on Tuesday. “He has the critical factors at his position: He will tackle, he has good ball judgment, he can play man-to-man, he has really good size and really good speed. I think he’ll be a really good player in the NFL.”

Milliner (6-foot, 201 pounds) remains the top cornerback available in the draft according to most analysts, but his place in the top 10 no longer seems guaranteed, although Cleveland remains a logical landing spot at No. 6.

The knocks started to gain momentum last week when NFL Network’s Mike Mayock moved Houston’s D.J. Hayden ahead of Milliner atop his corner rankings. Then this week, reports surfaced with details of his medical history.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Tuesday that Milliner has had five surgeries in his career — right knee scope, sports hernia, right tibia stress fracture, left shoulder, right shoulder.

This isn’t news to NFL teams but explains why some could be hesitant. Milliner’s latest surgery, delayed until after he ran at the scouting combine, was to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. There has been some consternation he won’t be ready by training camp, but he told the Plain Dealer he should be full strength by camp or August at the latest.

Saban’s heard rumors that Milliner might miss extended time, but said they’re much ado about nothing.

“First of all, he finished the season and the shoulder wasn’t a problem,” Saban said. “If he was still playing for Alabama, he’d be out for three months and ready to go.

“Jimmy Andrews and Dr. (E. Lyle) Cain are our team doctors, who operate on all the NFL guys. It’s not like we have some quack who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I hear this stuff and wonder where in the hell did they get this stuff?”

Even without the medical reports, some scouts questioned whether Milliner deserved to be a top-10 pick. It’s a discussion that’s surely taken place inside Browns headquarters.

They own the sixth pick and have an obvious need at cornerback. Joe Haden, the No. 7 pick in 2010, holds down one spot, but Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are the top candidates on the other side. They’re 5-9 and seem better suited for the slot.

Milliner has thought about joining Haden to form one of the league’s top tandems.

“Both of us are great talents,” Milliner said on ESPN. “Two great guys on the outside that can do great things, as far as guarding the bigger receivers and going up and getting the ball and the physical style we play with.”

Critics wondered about Milliner’s speed until he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine. Then he dropped some passes in drills there, and his ball skills were suddenly a weakness.

“People are wrong. People are wrong about a lot of things,” Saban said. “When people call me and talk to me about players, it’s amazing what they’ve figured out a guy is. They’re wrong a lot of times. That’s why there’s lots of mistakes made in the draft.

“All the coaches call me, the medical reports are wrong, the medical information is incorrect. I understand now why it was so difficult at Miami to get arms around who to draft. Everybody’s trying to kill everybody. ‘I don’t want to be responsible for this guy being a good player, so let’s nick him on something so if it doesn’t work out I told you so.’”

Saban coached the Dolphins for two years before taking over at Alabama. He was a defensive back at Kent State and coached the secondary for years, so he knows cornerbacks — his play at the line of scrimmage to jam the receiver, cover man-to-man and contribute in the running game.

“Dee’s done it very well,” Saban said. “He’s never, ever not been a very responsible, reliable guy.”

Milliner started 11 games as a true freshman with an interception. He lost his starting job as a sophomore, but had three interceptions playing in nickel situations. He started 12 games in 2012 (sat out against Western Kentucky as a precaution with a slight groin strain — the only game he missed at Alabama) and compiled 54 tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions and 22 pass breakups.

“He’s the best cornerback in the draft, with multiple attributes,” NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said.

Former Browns general manager Phil Savage knows Milliner better than most. He’s the analyst for Alabama radio broadcasts and the executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“Dee had a fabulous year this year,” Savage said. “He had to re-earn his spot and really change some things about him.
“He fits all the height, weight, speed prototypes and I think he can be a good pro, absolutely. I think if he’s paired off with another good corner he’s got a better chance going forward, but I like Dee. He’s competitive and he tackles and he can play the ball in the air.”

The highlight tape is filled with shots of Milliner running step-for-step with a receiver down the sideline, turning, finding the ball and making a breakup or interception. He watches video of NFL stars Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Patrick Peterson and Haden.

“The way they play, a physical style, quickness, how fast they are, how they go up and get the ball when it’s in the air,” Milliner said.

Saban’s recommendation glowed off the field, too.

“He’s a great person,” he said. “I don’t think he’s ever been in my office for anything. Never did anything wrong.
“He did a good job in school. He’s really well-liked by teammates. He’s a quiet kind of guy, but there’s a leadership ability about him. He’s what you’re looking for.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.