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
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
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.