ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Von Miller was such an athletic freak coming out of Texas A&M that his mentor, former Aggies coach Mike Sherman, joked he probably could have crumpled quarterbacks with one hand tied behind his back.
That's sort of what the Denver Broncos strongside linebacker had to do after tearing ligaments in his right thumb last November. He played the stretch run and the playoffs with a cast that prevented him from grabbing and shedding offensive linemen.
Although he faded toward the finish and was even benched in some situations, the second overall pick in last year's draft went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide and made the Pro Bowl, a validation of John Elway's first big move as the Broncos' boss.
It's only gotten better in Year 2.
"I have no doubt that I'll be a totally different player next year," Miller declared after running post-practice sprints one day in January. "It will be night and day between this year and next year."
Even though he has nine sacks, including a career-best three against Cincinnati last week, Miller isn't just Elvis Dumervil's pass-rushing partner anymore.
He's rounded out his game, dropping into coverage more and playing the run better while still getting after the quarterback — he's tied with Houston's J.J. Watt for the NFL lead with 17 tackles for loss, which is two shy of his entire total from his rookie year, and he trails only Watt's 10½ sacks for the league lead.
"I think he's becoming more of a complete player," coach John Fox said. "Some guys don't work on their weaknesses, they just kind of roll around on their strengths. And I think in his case, he's worked on some of the things he didn't do as much in college and that is mostly coverage and how he fits into the cover scheme.
"He's obviously got a lot of great abilities to rush the passer. I think that was evident a year ago, and I think it's evident again this season. He's a really terrific young guy that's not afraid to work hard."
Miller said his thumb injury that required surgery last year was actually a blessing because it forced him to focus on technique and not rely so heavily on his athleticism.
"You really take for granted your hands. You don't know what you've got until it's gone," Miller said. "Playing with one thumb and one and a-half hands, it helped me be more technically sound. Before, I was just moving around, just using all athletic ability."
Linebackers coach Richard Smith said he sees a more cerebral approach in Miller this season, and he bristles at the reminder that he had to pull Miller off the field at times last year, when rookies lacked the enormous benefits of an offseason because of the lockout.
"Last year he was an every-down guy, OK? He had a few times where I had to take him out of the game because of some sort of issues," Smith said. "Right now, what I see, he's bigger, stronger and faster than he was a year ago. Even though he would say he did yoga this summer, first of all, he's got freak athletic ability. So, that's not coaching; that's genetics. That guy's a beast, OK? That stuff is all natural.
"What I like about him is his focus, his attention in the meetings, on details he's getting much better. He's a much better first- and second-down player that he was a year ago."
Miller and Dumervil, who have combined for 15 sacks, making them the most prolific tandem in the league halfway through the season, are a younger version of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who complemented quarterback Peyton Manning so well in Indianapolis.
"Certainly, Von has special athletic skills," Manning said. "His ability to run, to cover ground, certain things that he has, you just can't teach."
Miller said there's plenty for him to learn still so that he can reach the goal he laid out for Elway, Fox and Smith before the 2011 draft.
"I want to be a linebacker, not a rush guy, not a pass specialist or run specialist," Miller said.
He won't say he's made big strides in that regard, however.
"Coach Smith, he'll tell you, I've got a long way to go," Miller said, adding, "I've made steps, not too big of hurdles or jumps, but I think I have definitely taken steps to being a great run defender."
Teams certainly no longer run roughshod over the Broncos, who rank 12th in the league against the run a year after ranking 22nd.
On Sunday, Miller gets to face Cam Newton, the one man selected ahead of him in last year's draft when the Broncos (5-3) visit the Carolina Panthers (2-6).
"Von is a very elusive defender," Newton said. "He's not very big in stature but he wreaks havoc with the things he brings to the table. He plays linebacker. He plays defensive end. He can cover. He can pressure the quarterback. He's about as all-around a defender as you can have."
Miller and Newton became fast friends during the lockout last year, and Miller said he'd love to sack his friend so he could imitate Newton's touchdown celebration where he pretends to rip open his jersey like Superman.
"I'm his biggest fan. But Sunday, I definitely want to win," said Miller, who is a-half sack shy of Dumervil's team record of 21 sacks in his first two seasons.
"If I had sons that play quarterback," Miller said, "I would tell them to watch Cam Newton."
And hope that the film shows daddy putting him on his back a time or two.
Notes: CB Tracy Porter (seizure) remained sidelined Thursday, but WRs Eric Decker (thigh), Demaryius Thomas (knee) and Brandon Stokley (knee) were all full participants, as was S Jim Leonhard (calf), the team's new player rep on union matters.
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AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton