There was a time when having a great middle linebacker was absolutely essential in order to build a dominant defense. In their primes, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher captained units that more than compensated for below-average quarterback play on the other side of the ball, ensuring that the Ravens and Bears were nearly annual contenders, even reaching the Super Bowl with guys like Trent Dilfer and Rex Grossman under center. Then there was Al Wilson, who was one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen and one of my all-time favorite Broncos. He was the heart and soul of the Denver defense for about five years, and when Wilson was forced to retire that defense lost its backbone, needing another five years to recover. But the game has changed. If you can’t find a better quarterback than Grossman or Dilfer, you will most likely find yourself with a top five pick in the draft the following year. Pro offenses are tailor-made these days to capitalize on all of the great qb’s and receivers, and as a result teams have also been forced to adapt on the defensive side of the ball. The middle linebacker isn’t nearly as important as it used to be because they are simply not on the field as much any more.
That’s good news for Nate Irving, a third-round choice in 2011 who John Elway believed was more than capable of manning the heart of our defense. Much like fellow 2011 draft pick Rahim Moore, Irving was a disaster as a rookie and was in over his head from the get go. And just like Rahim, he improved drastically in year two, making some quality plays when spotting Von Miller for a play or two. Irving looked a lot more comfortable as on outside linebacker, but the Broncos didn’t bring him in to be a glorified backup. They brought him in to solidify that middle linebacker position, and even if it’s not as vital of a position as it used to be, they still need someone to take care of business when teams force the Broncos to remain in their base formation. On top of all that, the players who held that position last year are no longer on the roster. Keith Brooking is gone. Joe Mays is gone. It’s now or never for Irving.
I haven’t heard much at all regarding how Irving has fared thus far in camp, but either way we won’t know if he’s up to the task of being a full-time starter until the games start to count. Even though he won’t be playing 100 percent of the snaps, he’ll still be responsible for relaying the play calls to his teammates, making adjustments at the line when the offense audibles and ensuring that everyone is lined up properly. Brooking handled those duties last year like the veteran he is while Mays was about as useful as a cock-flavored lollypop, so it would be nice if Irving could find a happy medium between the two and then gradually improve as the season progresses. Much like the other two guys I’ve covered, I don’t think Irving needs to be great this year, and the Broncos certainly don’t need him to be the second-coming of Ray Lewis. I’d settle for the second-coming of Al Wilson, but that’s just me.