Joe Mays comes from a city that knows a little bit about middle linebackers.
Joseph Lamont Mays was born on July 6, 1985 in Chicago to Renice Mays and Charles Williams, the city that brought the NFL Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. Joe attended the Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago where he began to play football his junior year. Although he’d grown up wanting to be Michael Jordan, it didn’t take him long to realize that he just didn’t have the body type for the NBA game. When asked why he made the move from basketball to football at that time, Mays replied,
I'd say the fact that you could hit somebody and not get in trouble for it -- just letting out some frustration. At that time, I had a little bit of frustration with everything that was going on in my life. Once I got to football, I kind of embraced it and enjoyed it. Then I started to love it and wanted to continue to do it.
Recognition came almost immediately. Joe was named first-team all-conference during his junior and senior seasons, and he earned first-team all-city honors as a senior after tallying 115 tackles, 16 sacks and two interceptions. When he graduated, he moved on to North Dakota State University, alma mater of popular retired Bronco Tyrone Braxton. Mays has talked at some length about how much he loved his college experience - in an interview with the Broncos' official website, Mays said,
It was fun, real fun. North Dakota State is a football school. We had our diehard fans. They come out there every Saturday and they yell and scream and they get you pumped up. You definitely want to do it for the fans and your teammates. I had a lot of fun. If I could go back in time, I'd do the same thing over and over again.
The North Dakota fans enjoyed it too. Mays played 43 games with 31 starts for NDS University during which he tallied 285 tackles, including a school-record 159 solo, 29.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and three interceptions. He was a three-time first-time All-Great West selection and received All-America honors in addition to the Great West Conference Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior, when he led the Bisons with a career-high 90 tackles. It was also at NDSU that he received his nickname The Decleator for his decimating hits. He was the unquestioned leader of the defense for the Bisons during his junior and senior years. His short-area quickness and ball instincts also stand out on film. His biggest struggles early on were with technique, a side effect of his late start into the game.
The toughest part for me was learning technique. It's one of those things that it's hard to learn, but once you learn it, it goes with you throughout your life. I learned a lot in high school and through college. It's still sticking with me. I think that was the hardest thing to learn at the beginning.
Despite his level of play and the accolades he accumulated, Mays didn’t get a Combine invitation. Teams were leery of taking on a player with a shorter than usual background in the sport, who came from a 1-AA school and who played against lesser competition. His 4.87-second time in the 40-yard dash didn’t help, although Mays plays much faster than he times. He’s had trouble flipping his hips in coverage and doesn’t change direction as well as some linebackers, but as a downhill player, he earned his sobriquet - he takes players straight out of their shoes, as KC Chiefs player Tony Moeaki found out on this play.
Mays would be taken in the sixth round (200th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles as a special teams player and backup linebacker. The short version of how he did there comes down to two things - he didn’t play linebacker in the regular season in 2008, but he led the Eagles with 19 special teams tackles in 2009 (for comparison's sake, Denver was led in ST tackles by Darcel McBath that year with 11) and he introduced himself to Cowboys WR/PR Patrick Crayton with this hit. Even so - the Eagles were ready to go in a different direction at linebacker and were short a running back, creating an opportunity for Denver to snatch up Mays. Josh McDaniels summed up his reasons for trading J.J. Arrington - who didn’t make it back from his knee injuries - for Mays in this way:
"He killed us last year in the kicking game," McDaniels said. "(He's a) very physical, fast linebacker that can absolutely play and factor in the kicking game to a strong degree. A young kid who we feel may have some really positive upside to him.
"He's a physical player and he kind of looks like Mike Tyson," laughed McDaniels, "and hopefully he'll play like Mike Tyson."
Mays’ reply? "I enjoy hitting. Not a lot of people do, but I do, and I'm one of the select few that can do it all day." Confidence is a necessity in the NFL, but to be fair, Mays is just stating the facts.
Mays has been working out daily with Brian Dawkins since March, and has worked out with Dawk’s team practices since May. Reports by Lindsay Jones and Josina Anderson have him bulked up in the chest and shoulder area, but still looking at playing at around 246, his usual playing weight. To be honest, thinking of what I’ve seen of Mays so far, the idea of him adding about 10 lbs of muscle in his upper body is danged near frightening. Mays started five games at inside linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 front last season, and both backed up and played some at MLB (only one start) in Philly during the 2009 season. What drew my attention, in addition to his astonishing hits, was the fact that Mays clearly was getting more comfortable in his pass coverage as the season went on, before sitting out the last few games with a knee injury. His run stopping didn’t need much in the way of an upgrade. Joe’s natural instincts are excellent, and he not only flies to the ball, he tends to remove people who are in his way quickly, having a knack for keeping his legs clean.
On that single day this spring when it was legally possible, Mays also was able to meet with both LB coach Richard Smith (formerly the LB coach of the Carolina Panthers) and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Joe obtained a playbook and has been studying it rigorously. He’s also commented publicly that he’d be glad to share the playbook with any rookie, including Nate Irving, who needs to study it. He’s said that he’s also planning to help develop Irving when training camp starts - Mays is a team guy, first and foremost. Mays is signed for one more year at the rate of $555,000 - which is a bargain price, given what he’s capable of - and after which he'll be a free agent. That could work out well for him - if he wins the starting job at MLB, he’s going to be worth more than just a special teams ace, no matter how talented.
New LB coach Richard Smith has been watching film of Mays. "When I watched him on film, Joe Mays can knock you out," Smith said. "I look at him, his body type is more of a Mike linebacker. I did have the opportunity to meet him during this offseason before the lockout, and I like his personality. I like his demeanor."
Despite Denver’s drafting of their hopeful future Mike in Nate Irving, as the lockout drags on, it becomes less and less likely that the rookie from NC State will be able to learn the system and his position within it in time to head off Mays’ run at becoming the starter. As I’ve noted on Denver's second-round pick Rahim Moore, that could work out to Irving’s advantage in the long term - not that many rookies, including some of the first-rounders, have the physical conditioning and mental preparation to start during their first year. Irving can learn the position behind Mays - and given the way that Joe plays linebacker, injuries are bound to occur at times. Irving can be developed to step in if or when that happens. Depth is a beautiful thing in football.
While the free safety is often considered the quarterback of the defense, it’s often the Mike who has to lead, particularly emotionally. That can be a lot easier to do when your MLB is prone to aggressive play and heart-stopping tackles. Given the fierce nature of the way he plays the game, leading the defense is a natural next step for Mays - he’s already announced that he would be coaching football if he wasn’t playing it. He’s a student of the game who works constantly to improve his skill set and his understanding of it. He’s played inside and outside at linebacker, and he’s registered 19 ST tackles in a single season. At the least, he’ll be the first backup at Mike: at best, he’ll start there in addition to ST work. Considering that Richard Smith has helped nine linebackers reach the Pro Bowl (including Karl Mecklenburg in 1993, when Smith was coaching STs in Denver and assisting with the linebackers), Mays is also going to have the advantage of learning from one of the best LB coaches in the league.
Mays has brought his family - his wife Latoyia, son Jai and daughter, Joi - to Denver with him. Having come out of Chicago by way of North Dakota, he’s also in love with the weather in Denver.
I like the city, man. I like it a lot. I'm a big-city guy, but out here, it feels more laid-back. Everybody just walks around and smiles and goes about their day. And 300 days of sun? You can't beat that. I like the cold weather, too. I grew up in it. I'm used to it. Colorado has been good to me so far.
So far, Joe’s been good for Denver, too. The Broncos have been missing a certain toughness to their game for a long time. Mays - another Josh McDaniels acquisition that’s gone right - has that kind of on-field mean, relentless toughness that the Broncos haven’t seen at MLB since Al Wilson’s unfortunate and career-ending neck injury. Over the next few seasons, I’d expect a constant competition at Mike between the Predator (Irving) and the Decleator. However they play, those two have to be near the top on Mike nicknames. It took Mays a while to really get his bearings in the NFL, but moving into his fourth season, he may well have worked his way up from a self-described special-teamer who plays a little linebacker to a leader who is a starting Mike, and who also leads and excels on special teams. Mays has continued to develop his conditioning, increased his strength and has a leg up on learning the playbook. When he decides to go and get something done, I like to be watching - and safely out of the way.
With Richard Smith coaching the position, Von Miller taking over at Sam, Mays/Irving battling at Mike, and with D.J. Williams, Wes Woodyard and Mike Mohamed competing for the Will slot, Denver’s linebacking crew looks like it’s on course to remedy the maladies that have plagued the Broncos' linebackers for several seasons now. I’m getting itchy for training camp.