UDFA Showcase: Ja’Quan McMillian

Hi guys, before we get to the impressions of Denver’s 2022 draft class, I wanted to highlight an UDFA gem (and one of Denver’s 30 pre-draft visitations), CB Ja’Quan McMillian. Let me start by saying that, at this moment, McMillian is likely Denver’s very best rookie CB, and not by a close margin (Mathis has perhaps greater long-term potential, and will be discussed separately)**. This is because McMilian (who was PFF’s top rated cover corner in 2021) shows a very rare trait for a DB– full efficiency in his posterior medial lumbar areas. This full lumbar efficiency gives McMillian the ability to mirror and shift his hips to match with his assigned cover at an extremely high level, even as his baseline speed/ strength appear somewhat underwhelming.

**Edit 5/14/22: This statement was based on early study of Mathis and Hicks– later more detailed study showed that Mathis (and perhaps Hicks) would likely out-play McMillian even if the season started immediately (May 2022)

However, unlike positions that are based around full efficiency for success– QBs (thoracic) and RBs (lumbar)– full efficiency for other positions is not necessarily a predictor of elite play. Consider, for example, Jakobi Meyers. Meyers shows full thoracic efficiency in his lateral posterior areas (very rare for WRs), and it translates to incredibly powerful and reliable hands (and blocking)– Meyers simply doesn’t drop the ball (barring the occasional mental lapse). However, his lumbar efficiency is nowhere near that same level of efficiency, and so Meyers struggles to generate separation. As such, despite his superlative thoracic efficiency, Meyers tops out as a possession receiver (albeit an extremely reliable one). And with a QB such as Mac Jones (who looks for large windows in which to pass), Meyers has produced far less prodigiously than he did with a QB (Cam Newton) whose stronger arm made him more willing to throw into smaller windows.

McMillian presents an inverted but similar set of opportunities and dilemmas. McMilian’s pure cover ability– his ability to match with receivers stride for stride– is already truly elite, due to his full medial posterior lumbar efficiency (meaning that he has elite lower body control). However, McMillian’s thoracic efficiency (and body size) are nowhere near that same level. As such, McMillian can be overpowered by larger/ taller receivers, even when he is in perfect cover position. Likewise, his abilities to tackle and evade blocking are compromised by his underwhelming thoracic efficiency/ length.

The below video– showing the 2021 matchup between McMillian and Alec Pierce (who was drafted over the weekend in the 2nd round by Indianapolis)– perfectly encapsulates the dilemmas presented by McMillian’s size and underwhelming thoracic efficiency. A glance at the boxscore would seem to indicate that Pierce dominated the matchup, and indeed he had an excellent game matched largely against McMillian’s coverage. But take a look at Pierce’s biggest play of the game– a long TD catch against McMillian (make sure to watch the replays)

This clip starts at the long TD, but rewinding to watch the full video is well worth it– even when Pierce seems to come up with easy completions against McMillian, the replay almost always shows McMillian in great position, only to be shoved out of the way at some point on the route (at least once by clear offensive pass interference). The QB throwing the ball is Desmond Ridder, drafted by Atlanta in the 3rd round (2nd QB taken overall in 2022)

McMillian had absolutely perfect coverage, got an arm between Pierce’s, and at one moment even seemed like he might be in position to make an interception. But Pierce’s greater size, strength, and wingspan enabled him to simply overpower McMillian and come up with the TD.

Even the very best NFL CBs get beat and have bad games– it’s simply part of the position. And to be clear, despite highlighting McMillian’s weaknesses in the above video, it’s apparent that McMillian possesses the physical talent to play at a high level in the NFL. The trouble is that his size and lack of thoracic efficiency make projecting his position fit very difficult. His elite coverage skillset suggests that he should be playing outside, but his size means that larger WRs would likely overpower him (as Pierce did in the above video). Meanwhile, McMillian’s tackling/ run defense/ lack of quickness mean that playing in the slot would likely not be a great fit either. It seems likely that this lack of obvious positional fit is what caused McMillian to fall out the 2022 draft and become an UDFA. However, this means that NFL decision makers may have underestimated McMillian’s truly rare cover ability– Denver would be wise to give him a chance to prove his worth and find his fit. Much as with Jakobi Meyers, even if he never reaches truly elite play, McMillian’s rare full efficiency (in his case, medial posterior lumbar) should enable him to play at a far higher level than suggested by his UDFA status.