For Raiders' wide receiver Nick Miller, it's been a long time coming. He was signed by the Raiders in the 2009 offseason as an undrafted free agent. At the time, the team saw him as a guy who could make a push to make the roster as a return specialist. That is the area in which he opened some eyes in college at Southern Utah where he was the school's all-time leader in kickoff return yardage. A stat that led him to be the Great Western Conference Special Teams Player of the Year.
Unfortunately that statistic alone didn't impress NFL teams enough to draft him. Those return numbers were pretty much all he had going for him. He stands just 5-9, and played for a small school in a weak conference. Teams saw him as a guy who wouldn't have been able to put up those kind of numbers against top tier college talent and therefore he would get laughed off an NFL field.
And even if he could play well as a return man, with roster spots at a premium, NFL squads would want a guy that could contribute in other areas as well and they just didn't see him as being able to compete at receiver.
The Raiders saw enough potential in him to bring him into the fold in camp. There was an open competition for return duties and at very least, he could be a camp punching bag. But he quickly showed that, not only was he a fantastic return man, but that he was a damn fine receiver as well.
He showed that he was a highly disciplined route runner with tremendous hands. He went from being a longshot to make the team, to being a shoe in. Then he got injured in the preseason. And before he ever set foot in a regular season NFL game, he was on the shelf.
The Raiders liked him so much, they held a roster spot for him. To the amazement and confusion of many (myself included), they didn't place him on IR to begin the season or even the PUP list. They simply kept him on the roster in the hopes that he would recover from his injuries at some point in the season. He never did and eventually, late in the season (far too late in fact), he was placed on IR.
He had created such a buzz in the 09 preseason that fans continued to anticipate his return. He suffered another injury in camp that slowed his progress in preseason. But the team still believed in what he could potentially become and he made the regular season roster.
The odd thing about his making the team however, was that despite his finally being healthy and despite the team's less than stellar receiving corps, he was inactive for the first 4 games of the season.
Then in week 5 versus the Chargers, he came out onto the field during a regular season game for the first time ever. He entered the game in the third quarter as the punt returner. He touched the ball for the first time in an NFL game and promptly returned the punt 46 yards to the Chargers 46 yard line. The Raiders would win that game to snap their 13 game losing streak to the Chargers. And standout special teams play was the main reason why.
Now that the coaches knew they had found their punt returner in Miller, the next test was to see what kind of receiving skills he had. He would have to wait two weeks before he saw his first pass. And yet again, he wasted no time showing everyone why he has a spot reserved for him on this team.
He came in the game after Louis Murphy had gone out with injury. And as soon as he entered the game, they called a play designed for him. It was nothing fancy, he just ran past his defender up the left sideline and Jason Campbell was looking to pass to him the whole way, regardless of coverage. Campbell put the ball in the air and left the rest up to Nick. And the deceptive young receiver kept his defensive back facing him as he leaped over him to pull down the pass for a 32 yard gain. The drive would lead to a touchdown in a rout of yet another AFC West rival in the Broncos.
Rarely has an undrafted, unheralded player with such extremely limited playing time, been so highly aniticipated.
And with the ongoing injuries to Chaz Schilens along with Louis Murphy's bruised lung, Miller may see some significant playing time in this Sunday's game against the Seahawks. The coaching staff obviously has a great deal of trust in his abilities. Otherwise they wouldn't have called for a deep sideline jump ball to him the first time he lined up at receiver in his career.
Although sideline routes are not the primary duties most see him performing regularly. He is the ideal slot receiver and comparisons to Wes Welker of the Patriots are pretty accurate. Nick is a surpreme route runner with equally good hands. Those qualities are what have him being compared to Welker. However, I would actually put Miller's speed and quickness ahead of Welker which is what makes him so dangerous in the return game. He is also very elusive, making the first prospective tackler miss almost every time.
I realize to many readers, it may sound like I am overrating a guy who has proven very little. I would be the first to tell you that I am a "prove it on the field" type of skeptic. But if you have seen what I and the Raider coaching staff has seen, you would know that Nick Miller will show you the kinds of abilities he brings to the table very quickly. It doesn't take long to see just what he is capable of and he doesn't miss opportunities.
Ironic considering we will likely see him lining up opposite Darrius Heyward-Bey who was drafted in the first round the same year he went undrafted. And DHB is a guy who has missed nearly every one of his considerable opportunities to prove that he was worthy of being drafted at all.
The time is now for Nick Miller to show the Raiders and everone else just what kind of diamond in the rough he really is. He could be the key piece that solidifies a receiving corps that is wholly lacking playmakers and a return game that has been abysmal since 2008. All the while, causing the other 31 NFL teams to wonder what they were thinking not taking a late round flyer on him. Or they may just be asking themselves "Who is this guy?" To which I am sure Nick will provide all the answers they need.
UPDATE: Nick Miller limped off the field during practice on Friday. It is an apparent ankle injury. No word yet on if he has re-aggravated a previous injury or not. He is questionable for Sunday's game at this moment. We will not know his status for certain until game time.