Free Agent Scouting Report: Bruce Irvin (LB/DE, SEA)
As the Miami Dolphins opted to transition tag breakout defensive end Olivier Vernon, there is still a very high probability that he signs with another club. If that occurs, then the new number one priority in Free Agency would certainly be restocking the pass rush. With so many holes on the roster and so little cap room, the Dolphins would need an every down player that can improve their ability to get to the quarterback. One such target is current Seattle Seahawk Bruce Irvin, who the Dolphins seem to be coveting. So, considering that the former West Virginia Mountaineer will likely be the Dolphins’ primary target in Free Agency, let’s take a look at his potential fit in South Beach.
The Seattle Seahawks drafted Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. The pick was not without controversy, as Irvin was seen as a second round talent that would be fetched with a late first round pick at best. There was a great deal of concern that Irvin was a one-dimensional pass-rusher and could not be an effective three-down defender. Seattle obviously disagreed, but still only used their first round pick as a situational pass-rusher. Irvin had a very successful rookie campaign, totaling 8 sacks as a rotational defensive end. As good as Irvin was as a pass-rushing specialist, the Seahawks’ brass decided to give the young standout a larger role on the defense, shifting him from designated pass-rusher to starting strong-side linebacker. Irvin initially struggled in the role, seemingly unable to gel with his teammates after serving a four game suspension. However, by season’s end, he was able to positively contribute to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl campaign as a starting linebacker.
By the 2014 season, Irvin finally seemed to be comfortable in his new role as a versatile linebacker. He improved in both pass coverage and run defense, while still maintaining his skill in a more limited role as a pass-rusher. In 2014 he totaled a solid 37 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions. After a close Super Bowl loss to a team that Von Miller erased from existence just over a month ago, Irvin continued to improve his play in 2015. Before the season began, the Seahawks declined the 5th year option of his contract. Seemingly driven by this, he attacked ball carriers and quarterbacks alike with a renewed tenacity, totaling 38 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 15 games. It may not show in the stat sheets, but Irvin has improved immeasurably as a complete player since his rookie season.
Bruce Irvin’s greatest strength lies in his versatility. While best suited to a role as a pass-rusher, he has shown that he can stop the run and hold his own in pass coverage as well. In addition to being an incredible athlete, Irvin has improved his mechanics in all phases of his game. This play against the Arizona Cardinals show the strides that he has made in pass coverage:
Irvin is tasked with covering shifty running back Chris Johnson. In the play the Cardinals run a wheel route, seeing a mismatch on the matchup. Carson Palmer throws a very good pass that could have resulted in a touchdown, but Irvin uses his speed and concentration to keep up with Chris Johnson and knock the pass away. His athleticism and versatility allow him to perform ably in all phases of the game. But, as solid as he is as a strong side linebacker, he has often performed at his best while lined up as a pass-rushing defensive end in the wide 9-nickel packages of Seattle’s defense. Take a look at this play against the Green Bay Packers for example:
Bruce Irvin lines up as a defensive end in a wide 9 sub-package of a nickel defense so that he’s angled directly at the quarterback. He gets off the line of scrimmage quickly, and uses his elite athleticism to take advantage of left tackle David Bakhtiari. Irvin simply outmaneuvers his man, and takes down one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers for a 7 yard sack. A pure pass-rusher coming out of college, Irvin is at his best with a hand on the turf and just getting after a quarterback.
While pass-rushing defensive end is Irvin’s most natural positional fit, he has spent the last three seasons as Seattle’s starting strong-side or “Sam” linebacker. In this position, the linebacker drops back into coverage or fills running lanes nearly as often as he rushes the passer. While initially struggling to get to the quarterback in this new role, Irvin has since adjusted. This play against the Carolina Panthers shows the progress that Irvin has made as a pass-rushing linebacker:
Here, Irvin uses his vision to identify the large hole that has opened up in the center of the line, to where he quickly shifts over. He makes the Panthers’ O-lineman look silly, easily outmaneuvering him to make a clear path to the quarterback. Cam Newton has absolutely no time to try and escape the pressure, and the play results in a sack on the MVP. A manhandling on Cam Newton like this play was a rarity before Von Miller and the Broncos’ burst the Panthers’ proverbial bubble.
The most concerning weakness that Irvin possesses has absolutely nothing with the way he plays football. Irvin has, at certain times, showed a lack of maturity both on and off the field. While not a pariah by any means, he has had run-ins with the law and has been involved in altercations on the field. In addition to serving a 4 game suspension for substance abuse during the 2013 NFL season, he became the first player ever ejected from a Super Bowl in 2014. These may be isolated incidents, and teams are likely to give a talent like him the benefit of the doubt.
Throughout this article, I’ve thrown around the word versatility ad nauseam. The word usually denotes a strength, but this could also be a weakness of sorts. While, lacking any glaring weaknesses, Irvin has not been given the opportunity to stick to the role that fits him the best. Seattle’s abundance of talent in the front seven has often left Irvin as the odd man out, filling in for whatever role is needed in a particular game. This has undoubtedly allowed him to become a more complete player, but the argument can be made that this may have also stunted his growth as a pass-rusher. One would think that a player with his talent at getting after the quarterback deserves the opportunity to do just that, far more often. Make no mistake, Irvin can do it all, but he’s best when rushing the passer. In coverage, he sometimes cannot keep up with some of the more agile running backs and slot receivers. This play against the New England Patriots exemplifies my point:
Irvin whiffs on a tackle against Julian Edelman on an end-around. Here you can see that Irvin lacks the short area quickness to consistently be a pure coverage linebacker. The point here is that regardless of his versatility, teams may be better suited letting the former WVU Mountaineer do what he was drafted to do. Another weakness lies in the fact that Irvin has never been asked to be The Guy. He has had the advantage of playing on all-time great defenses, and largely having a rotational role. It will certainly be interesting to see if Irvin can perform in a featured role without some of his All-Pro teammates.
As I have discussed in the past, many teams likely ere on the side of caution when it comes to signing players coming off of historic defenses. Recent busts like Dannell Ellerbe from the 2012 Ravens, and nearly every player that came from the 2013 Seahawks, may prevent some teams from shelling out tens of millions of guaranteed dollars to a somewhat unproven pass-rusher. But talented pass-rushers in their prime rarely hit the open market, and teams usually break the bank when it does happen. Recent contracts signed by talented, above average pass-rushers vary, but they always tend to be lucrative. The Philadelphia Eagles recently signed rotational pass-rusher Vinny Curry to a 5-year contract worth $46.25 million ($9.25 million per year). Elite pass-rushing specialist Jerry Hughes signed a very similar contract (5-year, $45 Million) with the Buffalo Bills just a year ago. I think that Bruce Irvin will sign a 4-5 year contract with $9-10 Million a year, as many other talented pass-rushers have done. Although, I can see a desperate team shell out a little bit more on account of the relative dearth of young talent at the position, once Olivier Vernon gets a more permanent home that is.
How He Would Fit in Miami:
If another team decides that they are more willing to pay for the services of Olivier Vernon, then Miami will be in dire need of pass-rushing help. With Cameron Wake coming off a torn Achilles, the Dolphins would need a guy that could immediately make quarterbacks uncomfortable. Honestly, improving the linebacker corps is of paramount importance either way. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is expected to incorporate a number of creative “wide 9” nickel packages as part of his defense, which Bruce Irvin is extremely familiar with from his time in Seattle. Whether at the linebacker or defensive end position, Irvin can rush the passer and has the experience to do just about anything that would be asked of him. Keeping the more proven Olivier Vernon would be ideal, but this may not be in the cards, as I think that a team with an abundance of cap room may outbid the Dolphins. If this does happen, signing Bruce Irvin would likely be more affordable than keeping Vernon anyway, allowing the team to ascertain more pieces to fix the team as a whole. We’ll know very quickly whether the Dolphins will be keeping Vernon or not. The question is if they can wait on Bruce Irvin as a contingency plan. If the Dolphins lose out on both, it’s fair to wonder if they will bypass other positions of need like interior O-line and cornerback in the draft to grab a talented pass-rusher instead. Either way, if the Dolphins’ are not able to retain Olivier Vernon or find a replacement, it’s going to be another long season in South Beach.