Scouting the Broncos: The battle at Mike LB

Joe Mays is making news.

Mays was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, beating the draft pundits and oddsmakers who had ranked him as an undrafted free agent. Denver traded twice-signed running back J.J. Arrington - or a conditional sixth-round pick if Arrington didn’t make the team - to the Eagles for Mays. Arrington didn’t stick in Philly, and Denver cheerfully gave up a sixth-round pick in 2012 to obtain Joe’s services.

Born in Chicago, where he attended Hyde Park High, Mays was the 2007 Great West Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He played in the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star Challenge after his senior season at North Dakota State University, a school made special in the hearts of Denver fans by the Broncos' 1987 12th-rounder - Tyrone "Chicken" Braxton. Mays was named to the 2007 Walter Camp Football Foundation FCS All-America team and The Sports Network FCS All-America third team. Mays was also a candidate for the Sports Network 's Buchanan Award. 

Joe played 43 games including 31 starts for NDSU, where he accumulated 285 tackles including a school record of 159 solo stops, along with 29.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and three interceptions. He had been a three-time first-team 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.  He led the Bisons with a career-high 90 tackles during that senior season. When the Broncos traded for him on July 31, 2010, Mays quickly became a fan favorite for his incredible tackling ability and nasty attitude on the field. He started five games for Denver later in the season before a Week 13 knee injury suffered while covering a punt sent him to the IR.

Unlike many players who consider special teams play a necessary evil, Mays had described himself as a special teams player who ‘played a little linebacker’. The Eagles had only started him once, but as he learned the Denver system and injuries started to mount, he was a welcome addition to the defense when he came on as a starter. As then-coach Josh McDaniels said when announcing Mays' placement on IR,

He's definitely been a very valuable addition to our team, not only on defense but his impact has been there all year in the kicking game. He's a very unselfish guy that took his role and did the most with it. He plays extremely hard. We'll miss his impact here the last month of the season.

Watching him on game film, the Broncos' new front office team quickly decided to give him a chance to compete for the starting job at Mike LB in 2011. According to local reporters Lindsay Jones and Josina Anderson, Broncos fans will be able to look forward to a Battle Royal that’s brewing over that starting Mike position in Denver’s new defensive look. Jones has been reporting the upcoming conflict since the beginning of May, but changes in Mays’ conditioning have promoted renewed discussion of the situation.

According to their reports, Mays has gained ten pounds of muscle, mostly in his shoulders (as seen plainly in this DP video) while working out this offseason with Brian Dawkins. He’s currently at about 250, but their reports differ on how Mays plans to move forward. Both say that says that Joe wants to play at or around 240 lb next season. He was 246 lb when he came over from the Eagles.

Even though the Broncos told Mays that he’d be trying out for the Mike linebacker slot prior to drafting Nate Irving out of North Carolina State at pick three of the third round last month, Irving should push Mays in camp. Nate has an incredible life story, having survived a nearly fatal one-vehicle accident in 2009, before coming back in 2010 and making the jump from Will to Mike. In addition to his substantial talents on the field, Irving is a natural leader who made the change in position easily and absorbed the changes in how teams come at you in the middle as opposed to on the edge with little difficulty. By the Wolfpack's fourth game of 2010, he’d regained his physical skills - remarkable for a player who suffered a broken rib, a compound fracture of the tibia, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung the year before. Courage is something that Irving has in spades - he’s fully recovered from the accident, and played extremely well in 2010.

Denver has also told Irving that they want him to become the starter, so an unusually tough competition is likely to be on tap. The deciding factor at the start of next season may be that Mays is considered the starter coming into training camp and Irving could use a year to bulk up and learn the NFL game, but nothing is certain right now. Both players are tough, instinctive and play with a lot of attitude. Neither is especially speedy when running in trunks, but both have excellent lateral movement, good recognition skills and take good angles to the ball. Irving has the edge in straight-ahead speed and in coverage, but it’s still unclear as to how much that will influence the position in Denver’s new scheme. 

Mays struggled at Mike in Philadelphia - for whatever reason, he just didn’t work out well there - but whatever problems he may have had were anything but evident when he played for Denver last season. His power, attitude and intimidating tackling would be highly desirable as a Mike LB if he can make the grade, but he hasn’t played a full season at Mike at the NFL level (although he did play some ILB later last season before his injury). Irving has two inches of height on Mays, and Joe’s shorter stature has always been considered a knock on him. You couldn’t see that by the way that he hits, though. Unquestionably, both will be highly desired on special teams, where both have been standout players. 

For more on Mays and Irving's pre-Denver exploits, check out these YouTube highlight videos:

You make the call - I don’t think that Denver can lose. 

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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