Linebacker is not a small issue. Granted, both Johns Elway and Fox have said that they’re less concerned with the Mike situation than most people think.
While the draft is enticing, there aren’t a lot of true Mikes out there. Many fans adore Alabama's C.J. Mosley. Some even call for trading up to get him, which I don’t see.
Other fans praise Ryan Shazier of Ohio State, with good reason. He’s a good, fast, quick, and instinctive player. As a nickel linebacker, defending the pass, he can play well - provided he can tackle in the open field at the NFL level. He could be developed into a true three-down player, giving Denver a trio of them, along with Von Miller and Danny Trevathan.
Much as I love the draft, I think that Elway & Co. are comfortable, because they saw the development of a current Bronco last season. After watching him on film, they believe that he can move inside for early downs.
The player is Nate Irving, who’s been a perennial afterthought in the media. He’s a 6-1, 245-pounder, who is well acquainted with Jack Del Rio’s system. His improvement last year was impressive to me. Watching his film and looking at his stats this week showed why he might be that starting first- and second-down Mike.
I don’t know a lot of folks who believe that Denver is happy with their linebacker corps as a whole. Two roles - nickel backer and perhaps early down Mike - seem to remain unfinished. Denver has some strengths that aren’t mentioned enough. One of those is Irving. Few people seem to see him as starter material. I say there’s a disconnect with what they say and how well he plays in specific roles. Before the pitchforks and torches come out, let’s look at what Irving has done.
He didn’t have an immediate impact, after having arrived as a 2011 third-rounder, 67th overall. That cost him the interest of many fans, who had tired of bad drafts. He’d survived a dangerous car accident, and a lot of people didn’t believe that he could return.
He did, and played both Will and Mike for North Carolina State. For Denver, he usually played in backup and special teams roles until 2013. Miller’s suspension and injury brought Irving onto the field more frequently. What could keep him there this year is his noticeable improvement as the season wore on.
He ended up with positive grades in both run defense (+3.0) and pass coverage (+3.2) last year. The quality of his work in pass coverage has surprised a lot of people. That includes those that still claim he’s weak there - if that’s your view, watch the film or check his stats on PFF. Either way, he looks good.
He played 357 defensive snaps and didn’t commit a single penalty. He had one sack, permitted one receiving touchdown, and had one pass defensed. Opponents targeted him 22 times, and he allowed 16 receptions. He still needs work there, but that’s not a bad number for a linebacker. He only missed a single tackle all year. That was against New England in the playoffs.
On special teams, he added seven solo tackles, one assist, and zero missed tackles. While special teams don’t have a lot to do with early downs at the Mike, it’s an indication of his ability to tackle in the open field.
In 2012, he had nine solo tackles on special teams in just nine games, also with no missed tackles. I’m not big on coincidences. I think he’s getting that good. The tough decisions will be on which gap to cover in the run game. Playing Sam had some of those issues, and he handled it well.
Nate’s versatile enough to play some Will if it’s needed, and strong and quick enough to be a good backup Sam.
How about playing the Mike?
Denver will have a nickel backer covering most passing downs in Danny Trevathan, but they need one beside him. I think who that player will be is a far more interesting question. That’s the biggest role that I believe that Denver has to fill.
Even so - the first- and second-down Mike issue is real. You want a player there with both run stopping and coverage skills. Irving grew in confidence as well as skill last season. Some players just need game time on the field to mature.
If Irving has to stay on the field in a true no-huddle situation, it’s not a huge deal. Why not? He showed growth throughout the 2013 season, and he learned a lot about pass coverage. His tackling was top-drawer, and that’s a big part of Denver’s need at Mike. He had 41 tackles, 29 of them solo.
He did commit two penalties on special teams, but that’s not a deal-breaker; he’s a leader on the kicking units. With Wesley Woodyard now gone, a captaincy isn’t out of the question. He’s improved enough to have earned it.
Denver might believe that Lerentee McCray or Steven Johnson has the chops to step right in on early downs. They might see Irving as Candidate #1 going into camp, but give the position an honest competition. They also might know who they want in the draft at nickel, and they won’t be telling that. There’s little doubt that there are excellent linebacker candidates - both inside and outside - who might fit the changes that Del Rio will make.
Fox has always played the more experienced player if the choice was close. Irving is the only LB who has three or more seasons at that position. I’m leaving out Miller, because he missed so much of last year and plays a hybrid Sam/DE role besides. Of the options currently available for MLB, Irving has earned his shot at early downs. The coaches appear to agree. Steven Johnson will get one as well.
His pass coverage and run stopping are about equal, and both are positives. I don’t think he is the preferred nickel backer, but he’s a fine two-down player. It’s not what most folks seem to believe, but he's improved substantially. Whether on stats or on film, I liked what I saw from him. Now we’ll see what his next step might bring.
I expect a coverage nickel backer in the draft. Denver has been looking at Ryan Shazier, Telvin Smith, and Preston Brown. The depth at linebacker is better than most people think, but that’s another story.