The Unknown of Bruce Irvin

Bruce Irvin’s career has followed a strange path.

Irvin entered the NFL as the 15th overall pick of the 2012 draft. He was a shocking choice by the Seattle Seahawks. Irvin was old, he’d turn 25 before the end of his rookie season, had been arrested twice in the past, detailed here by Yahoo, and was under-sized, he weighed 245 lbs at the combine.

The Seahawks didn’t need him to play every down during his rookie season. He was a backup to Chris Clemons at the LEO position and only shared the field with the Seahawks’ primary edge rusher on obvious passing downs.

Rushing the passer was supposed to be where Irvin excelled. Mike Mayock described him as the most natural pass rusher of his class, while his explosiveness was easy to see.

During his rookie season, Irvin followed that path.

He had eight official sacks, 10 if you count half sacks as full sacks, despite not playing a full-time role. Not only was Irvin getting to the quarterback often, he was doing so in different ways. Four of Irvin’s sacks came on speed rushes, on one occasion he beat a double team that way, once he converted speed to power while using different pass-rushing moves for three more sacks.

Only two of his 10 sacks came on blown assignments from the opposition, with six of his sacks coming within three seconds of the ball being snapped.

Irvin-Bulaga

 

When Chris Clemons tore his ACL in the playoffs, Irvin looked set to become the team’s primary pass rusher. Clemons would need time to recover from surgery and wouldn’t be fully healthy for the start of the following season. Irvin would never get that opportunity though. He was suspended for the first four games of 2013, but more importantly he was usurped by the arrivals of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.

Bennett and Avril forced Irvin to become the team’s strong-side linebacker in their base defense. He would still be a part-time edge rusher, but he was now starting in a position off the line of scrimmage.

Irvin entered the league as someone who was supposed to rely on his pass-rushing skill set to excel but was instead asked to play a completely different role. He was fitting into a defense that had more talented players at his position. Pete Carroll made the most out of Irvin’s skill set, but he was just an ancillary piece on a great defense in that role.

Despite playing in what seemed like an unnatural fit for him over the past three seasons, Irvin signed a four-year deal worth $37 million with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. Just $12.5 million was guaranteed, but this was still a big-money move for the Raiders.

The Raiders need quality starters on the defensive side of the ball. Charles Woodson was arguably the team’s second best defensive player behind Khalil Mack last year, he now works for ESPN.

Signing Irvin to that contract to fill the same role he filled in Seattle is concerning. He has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Byron Maxwell as an ancillary piece who can excel in a specific role when in a good situation. When moved to a bad situation and asked to fill an expanded role, Maxwell collapsed in on himself.

The Raiders defensive front is fluid. They have the personnel to play 4-3 or 3-4 and the way they align makes the distinction largely irrelevant. For the Raiders to get the most out of Irvin, they will need to use him as a pass rusher more often than the Seahawks did. He isn’t good enough as an off-ball linebacker to live up to that contract in that role.

If Irvin can return to who he was during his rookie season as a pass rusher, there should be no problem with this signing. In fact, it could prove to be a great addition because of the other pieces in the Raiders defensive front.

Khalil Mack is already a star. He broke out statistically last season but was a dominant force from the first moment he stepped onto the field during his rookie year. The Raiders would likely be interested in Sheldon Rankins during the first round of this year’s draft if he falls far enough. Rankins would offer the Raiders an interior disruptor, but even without him they should expect Mario Edwards Jr to emerge.

When Edwards Jr was drafted, there was talk of him playing LEO. That never made much sense because he didn’t have the body type or skill set to play outside. Common sense prevailed fortunately. Edwards lined up inside a lot and when he moved outside he wasn’t coming from wide positions too often.

Edwards, Mack and Irvin offer the Raiders three talented pass rushers. They still have major questions that need to be answered in their back seven, but if all breaks right in the defensive front they should have a foundation to build around at the very least.

Any time you sign a free agent, you’re dealing with a huge element of the unknown. It’s less so than with draft picks, but still prominent.

Irvin’s path to this point in his career makes his unknown greater than most other high profile free agents. You typically only have to worry about how the player reacts to getting huge money and moving teams when you sign one of the top players from a free agent class. This year’s options were weaker than in previous years though, so Irvin became a top available option by default rather than because of his career to this point.

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