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Scouting the Broncos Vets: Linebacker Nate Irving

Could the Broncos already have an answer at middle linebacker in Nate Irving? We working with Texans assistant linebacker coach John Gales to scout Broncos linebacker Nate Irving.


Last offseason I scouted a number of players entering their 4th, 5th and 6th seasons. It was popular, so I wanted to continue this series during the 2014 off-season. Many of these players are commonly discussed, but we too often misunderstand what type of players they are now. While few players make big strides in years 1-3, by a players 4th year they should have progressed in a number of areas. With that mentality I wanted to approach my study of these players like an NFL scout would a rookie, looking back on the most recent season's game film and then write up a scouting report. By doing this I feel the Broncos fan base can create a more up-to-date picture of what these players strengths and weaknesses are instead of relying on what we remember from their early careers.

The players from last season I scouted so you can see other examples:
- Knowshon Moreno (4th year) Scouting Report Found Here
- Zane Beadles (3rd year) Scouting Report Found Here
- David Bruton (4th year) Scouting Report Found Here
- Robert Ayers (4th year) Scouting Report Found Here
- Wesley Woodyard (5th year) Scouting Report Found Here

This season we'll be scouting:
- S Rahim Moore Scouting Report Found Here
- LB Nate Irving
- CB Chris Harris Jr.
- OL Orlando Franklin
- TE Virgil Green

I'm going to be using the CBS Sports player profile outline, since it's so robust and even used by now. They break the players skills into a variety of categories and then give them a score for that category by looking at every snap they play. For each player I'll try and do my scouting with either a member of an NFL team staff or a someone from a reputed scouting site. Our method is straightforward with me watching every game and snap while my partner does this separately. Then at a later date we watch two to four games together and compare notes. Following this session we assign a score. For example the average NFL starter at any position will be a 7, a 9 would be around Pro Bowl level while an 8 is above average. A 6 is an area of concern while a 5 is likely reason to be benched. This is a methodology I started two years ago and which I first used last off-season whiling working on perfecting it during my time at ESPN.

For this study I was extremely blessed to work with John Gales, formerly of the Houston Texans where he was an assistant coach working with the linebackers. This is not his scouting report since that would be inappropriate but he did assist me in my film study. Now since Irving wasn't a starter this season, he didn't have the top 300 snaps needed to look at that we normally do so we included his snaps from 2012 as well. As always I wish I could include more clips but since these articles are so long anyways, including more than one or two plays would only increase the length. Because of this I almost always try and include a positive play by the player rather than a negative one.

*This isn't a predictor of future success. It's an assessment of their ability currently; it's how they performed in the past.*


Athletic Ability: Irving is a well built linebacker who can hit hard and accelerates quickly in small spaces which helps him close the gap ans well as off the snap as a pass rusher. But despite a quick first step and good size, he lacks the strength to break any form of blocking, seeing all his success when unblocked. For being the Broncos most physical linebacker in 2013 he was largely shut down, even by tight ends. The most irritating part of Irving's game is his hip motion, at times Irving has more fluid hips than anyone else on the field but far more often he is so incredible stiff that he can barely turn any direction, causing him to fall behind. A good example of  bad-hips Irving was the touchdown he allowed against Jason Witten in week 5.

Irving has the physical tools but seems to lack the consistent performance to say for sure what the true ceiling for him is. At his apogee Irving shows he can attack the play quickly and with strength but just can't seem to do it play in and play out. While Irving isn't young or inexperienced anymore, he's got to hope coaching can finally catch on after these three years and improve a potentially strong skill set into a reliable one.
- GRADE: 7.3

Football Sense: Nate is more of an aggressive player than a thinker, attacking the play immediately without looking for if it might have some complexity to it. Because of this he was an utter failure when it came to defending draw runs and play action, but was successful in run defense when the play went his way. Another issue this caused was he lacks the vision to see blockers coming from any angle other than in front of him, getting laid out a few times by blockers that hit him while he wasn't paying attention.

This lack of ability to read the field is what is most likely holding him back, and it really hurts his ability in all aspects of the game, from filling holes in run defense to pass coverage, Irving is single minded and while this does help him on special teams and when no one gets in his way or does anything remotely complex, but it causes him to see a lot of culpability when he's on the field. He does his best to fulfill his assignment, when dropping into zone he'll stay there even if there are no receivers on his side of the field, often times leaving him looking foolish when someone get behind him in his zone, the in and out, as well as any form of comeback, route caused him some serious trouble throughout the season.

Finally he has no ability to hide what he is doing. After watching him against Baltimore, as well as the first and playoff San Diego games, Irving would try and act like he was doing something but was easily discovered by any form of motion or quarterback inflection, and he was exploited, especially against Baltimore.
- GRADE: 4.9


Acceleration/Burst: Possibly Irving's greatest strength: when he gets the snap count right, Irving flies to the play with little hesitation. Now he doesn't have an amazing first step but it is more than adiquate and better than the rest of the linebackers save Von. While he struggles in coverage due to poor form he has that burst that if he falls behind a tad that allows him to catch up once the ball is in the air, either enough to tip the ball or at least get to the receiver fast enough to tackle them before they can run with the ball. This was a saving grace against Oakland the first time where he got beat a few times but managed to catch up and make late tackles. The only thing that holds him back in this area is not reading the play right. If he had the football sense of some past Broncos linebackers like DJ Williams or even the current Danny Trevathan, he's dominate the field.
- GRADE: 7.6

Possibly Irving's greatest strength: when he gets the snap count right, Irving flies to the play with little hesitation.

Read and React: As mentioned earlier Irving lacks any real football sense other than what is in front of him. While he does watch the quarterback or running back with his eyes he never makes adjustments based off of what he sees. He is doing what he is supposed to but either ignores what he sees or is just ignorant when it comes to adjustments. It's hard to say things like this, Irving seems to be trying, Gales keeps point out how Irving is doing the physical part of the game (the easier part) but seems to be unable to translate what he sees into mid-play adjustment (the harder part). This is a tough thing to fix or coach, it's something they should either know by now from years playing the position or something they may never learn.
- GRADE: 5.3

Run Defense: The real strength of Irving's game is found right here, stopping the run. Irving has the size and burst to quickly attack the ball carrier and bring them down, he rarely takes bad angles and had zero missed tackles last year, in part due to his wide tackling form that results in take downs almost every time. These skills are why Irving excels as a two down linebacker, and he does it well. But having said that, while he has had success, it should be noted HOW that success happens. I mentioned earlier how Irving is a "give an assignment and go" type of player, this makes him a good run defender for the most part but against backs who can cut, he struggles. Irving's at his best when he can fly into a gap with his burst, it's why of his 15 run defense tackles 12 were for stops Before we end, let's take a look at a play where Irving succeeds in this area. It was against the Oakland Raiders in week 3.









End Play


- GRADE: 7.9

Pass Defense: I won't go into this too much since it has already been covered. I'll just speak briefly about how he handles the two main types of coverage. While he played very little man coverage the time he did spend covering a receiver was largely unimpressive. He proved to be indecisive and showed little clout for predicting routes and reading the tendencies of those he was covering. He also doesn't have the speed to keep up with actual receivers or backs despite good burst, which was always disturbing when Del Rio put him in one-on-one coverage with a quick receiver or running back.

When it comes to zone coverage, Irving is slightly better since he was given an area to cover and he could watch the quarterback. Now for most linebackers in zone coverage their assignment is to watch the quarterback while sitting in the middle of the zone and then following a receiver if the quarterback was watching that player. Far too often Irving would sit in the middle of the zone, watch the quarterback like he was supposed to but lacked the sense to know if there was a receiver behind him or to interpret what the quarterback's eyes were saying. Though later in the season he did improve this slightly by altering his technique by moving deeper into his zone rather than sitting in the middle like most do. By making this alteration he was able to see his entire zone and use his burst to make plays if he saw the ball coming his way. While not an ideal style of play this is a huge upgrade for Irving.
- GRADE: 6.4

Tackling: Irving has very good tackling form, rarely tackling with his shoulder, instead he displays near perfect form, extend his arms wide before the collision and then a quick wrap up once he makes contact, he doesn't go for the big hit by leading with his helmet or shoulder, instead he sticks to the fundamentals. This section may be short but that is because there is only so much praise you can place on a player for doing the basics and Irving excels when it comes to tackling fundamentals, missing zero tackles last year.
- GRADE: 8.2

Pass Rush: Irving isn't a pass rusher in the current defense, only rushing the quarterback 31 times out of his 281 snaps (11.1%). Now that's not to say he struggles at it, when given a clear lane he's quite effective due to his fusillade , but almost his entire production as a pass rusher in 2013 (1 sack, 2 hits, 2 hurries) came when no one blocked him. Even Irving's lone sack (while intense) came due to coverage not from his speed or reaction (he bit on the play action). Irving isn't a bad pass rusher, especially when he can exploit a hole in the blocking, but he lacks the strength and skill to effectively get to the quarterback.
- GRADE: 6.8

OVERALL GRADE: 6.7 (Slightly below average starter)


What Irving lacks in football intelligence and skill he makes up for with strong fundamentals in his tackling. Irving doesn't appear to really understand the complexities of coverage and lacks the strength as a linebacker to attack the quarterback effectively but is an extremely stout run defender which is why he is used as the two down linebacker most of the season. He fits the mold defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio seems to like in middle linebackers of the past few years ( Joe Mays, Keith Brookings and Paris Lenon), pounders who come in on run downs and help shut down the run but come out in pass situations. Even when Wesley Woodyard returned from injury and had lost his job to Danny Trevathan, Woodyard was still the other primary coverage linebacker, replacing Irving.

Irving isn't a rookie anymore, in his 3rd year he did see his most snaps of his career but despite injuries to both Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller (who also missed time due to suspension) Irving was unable to crack the lineup often, starting more than half the snaps of a game just once in his 17 games. All this despite Irving being handed the starting job in training camp.

Irving has a future on this team - he's a good special team player and a strong run defender. But at this point in his career, his poor pass rushing skills and massive struggles in coverage make him a liability if he plays too many snaps. Irving will likely still compete for time at linebacker, and will see the field in 2014, - but if his 2014 season is like 2013, hopefully that time on the field is not on passing downs.