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How Ja’Quan McMillian became the quarterback of the Denver Broncos’ defense

Henry Chisholm Avatar
November 11, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ja’Quan McMillian’s big break came early in January.

Rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis, who had started opposite Pat Surtain II for the Denver Broncos for most of the season, had a concussion. He wanted to play in the season finale against the Chargers, but he realized on the Thursday before the game that he wouldn’t be ready on time.

“I remember Marri coming over to me and saying, ‘You’re starting. I’m down,” McMillian told DNVR. “My body started shaking. It was such a surprise.”

McMillian, now 23, had joined the Broncos in the offseason as an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina. He’d ranked eighth in the nation with four interceptions in his sophomore season and the fourth in the nation with five interceptions as a Junior. He’d finished second in the country with 16 passes broken up. 

But his 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame, his lackluster testing, and his small-school background left him undrafted.

McMillian spent his entire rookie season on the Broncos’ practice squad… until the season’s final week when he was elevated to the active roster and took on a starting cornerback role in his NFL debut.

“I was just happy to show that I can play at this level,” McMillian said. “I always knew I could, but playing that game just made it for sure. Like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’”

McMillian played a great game. He lined up against veteran receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and beat them as often as they beat him. He forced incompletions on half of the 12 passes thrown his way. He gave up a 76.4 passer rating when targeted. He nearly came away with an interception in the middle of the field—and he got up and returned it for a touchdown—but the officials made a controversial decision to rule the pass incomplete.

Ja’Quan McMillian prevents a completion to Mike Williams. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the 10 months since the game, McMillian has rewatched the game repeatedly.

“I ain’t gonna like, I watched it a lot,” he said, laughing.

One play in particular still frustrates him.

The Chargers aligned in a bunch formation, and McMillian had studied enough to know that the receiver closest to the sideline almost always ran an out route.

“I knew if I get a pick, it’s going to be this play,” he said. “But I didn’t really trust it because I knew they had a double-move off of it. I knew the formation or whatever, but me being in my first game, I was like, ‘I don’t want to give up nothing deep,’ so I kind of played it slow. But I knew exactly what was coming.”

McMillian stepped up and tackled the receiver as soon as the ball was caught but couldn’t force the incompletion.

McMillian competed during training camp and earned a spot on the active roster. But the new coaching staff liked him best in the slot. He’d played almost exclusively on the boundary in college—he guessed he’d played 10 total downs at nickel at East Carolina—and his only NFL experience came outside.

“Whatever role they want me to play, I’m gonna be happy to be doing that,” McMillian said. “I’m just blessed to be on this team. Last year, I was on the practice squad. This year, I’m a step further.”

McMillian only saw the field for a handful of snaps in the first month of the season, but after the Broncos’ 70-20 loss in Miami, the Broncos wanted to make a change.

On the Wednesday before the Broncos’ game against the Bears in Chicago, Broncos defensive backs coach Christian Parker caught McMillian as he entered a defensive backs meeting and broke the news that McMillian was taking over as the starting nickel.

McMillian felt the same when he found out he was earning his first start against the Chargers.

“It was out of nowhere, so I got that rush in here,” he said, pointing at his chest.

McMillian thinks his first game went alright.

“It was my first game playing at nickel,” McMillian said. “I made a couple of mistakes. Normal stuff, you know? First time out there. So I didn’t play bad.”

The big mistake came when McMillian gave up a touchdown to tight end Cole Kmet up the sideline.

“The play they scored the touchdown, I knew it was coming,” McMillian said. “I looked at Damarri like, ‘This is a switch.’ I knew it was coming.”

But McMillian tripped. Kmet was left wide open. The Bears took a 14-7 lead.

McMillian sits next to cornerback K’Waun Williams in meetings. Williams, 32, was the Broncos’ starter in the slot in 2022 and was supposed to hold that role again in 2023. But an ankle injury will keep Williams sidelined for the entire season.

“I look up to K’Waun,” McMillian said. “He’s teaching me the ins and outs because he knows this is my first time really playing nickel. He’s coaching me up. He’s helping me out a lot.”

“The best tip he gave is to just make a decision. The defense is set off of me. They’re waiting on me to see what I do.”

McMillian has taken that advice to heart.

“Each game, I feel like I grow more confident, get more comfortable in the position,” McMillian said. “I feel like I’m playing fast. A lot of that is just how I am, and a lot of that is game film, too. I just make sure I prepared for each game.”

McMillian’s physicality in the running game stands out. He isn’t scared of 300-pound linemen.

“I just use my space, use my athleticism and run around them—or do what I’ve gotta do. If I’ve gotta put my hands on them, no problem there,” he said. The physical aspect, I’m never nervous about that. I’ve been this size my whole life.”

In the Broncos’ first game against the Chiefs, McMillian notched three tackles for loss. NFL cornerbacks have only surpassed that number in a single game twice since the stat was first recorded in 1999.

Ja’Quan McMillian and Alex Singleton combine to make a tackle. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“It just shows how fast I was playing. I’m just getting more comfortable with a nickel position.”

McMillian has plays he wants back—like a speed out from Kadarius Toney that McMillian burst forward and got a hand on, but later realized he could have picked off—but he’s played well for the most part. (He got his first interception in his second game against the Chiefs.)

And you don’t have to take my word for it; McMillian’s 82.1 grade from Pro Football Focus is the best of any Broncos defender this season. It ranks ninth among cornerbacks across the league and first among pure nickelbacks. 

McMillian’s confidence is growing, and he’s embracing the responsibilities of playing in the slot.

“I’m like the quarterback of the defense now,” he said.

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