Now that the 2012 NFL Draft is in the can, it's time to take the Shutdown 50 scouting format forward and take a closer look at some of the surprising and fascinating selections from this year's draft -- the guys we missed in the original 50, but who could be impact players now or down the road. Our first entry: West Virginia OLB/DE Bruce Irvin, selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the 15th overall pick.
Overview: So ... if Irvin was the 15th player taken in the draft, how did we miss him in the original 50? The answer lies in a functional disconnect between media people who evaluate players, and the guys who do it for actual NFL teams. Irvin was given a second-round grade by most of the people on our side of the fence for two reasons -- prior character dings, and the perception that he's a one-trick pony with limited pro potential. NFL teams, however, checked out his checkered past, looked at the tape, and saw how he would work in their defenses - especially after he's coached up on a few things and put in the right place in a defensive front. To put it kindly, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Irvin was often misplayed at West Virginia. A player who looks like a pass-rushing version of DeSean Jackson should not line up for half his snaps on the tackle's inside shoulder so that he can be nuked by blockers who outweigh him by 80 pounds.
At his first NFL conference call, Irvin spoke to the college coaching issues, and outlined his potential. "I used to play receiver in high school. I feel like I'm a great athlete. Like I said, I got 23 sacks in two years without any pass rushing coaching. So just imagine if I've got a coach that knows what he's talking about to teach me some stuff. I'm going to do great stuff for this organization. The sky is the limit for me. I just need a great group of people around me and get around a great group of pros who are going to show me how to be a pro on and off the field and I think I'll be all right."
The Seahawks weren't the only team looking at Irvin in the first round, but they got him, and general manager John Schneider could not have been happier about a pick that left people scratching their heads at first. "We were extremely excited," Schneider said last Thursday. "We didn't want to get too cute with this. We obviously viewed him as the best pass rusher in the draft. Trying to add that to our team, add to the team speed. There was a certain area we thought we could get to and then we talked about going back again and then we decided to go ahead and lock it down. We had this guy rated as one of the top players in the draft."
So, he's raw clay, formed into the shape of a scud missile? The West Virginia tape does show that potential ... when Irvin is in the right place, and not forced to take double teams in a tight 3-3-5 stack (which I will term the "WTF Defense" in this case).
Strengths: Irvin may be the fastest pass-rusher I have ever seen. As far as pure burn off the line, he's cartoonish. Comes off the ball and gets a couple of steps in before all but the best tackles can get their hands up and feet set to deal with him. Has closing speed to the quarterback or ballcarrier common to the fastest cornerbacks. Made a play against Clemson in 2011 (at the 2:00 mark in the video below) in which he was blocked out by the left tackle, ran across the formation, and got upfield to tackle the quarterback in a play you have to see to believe.
That's what I call "football porn."
Reads the run and adjusts to change of direction in the backfield surprisingly well. Irvin can stop on a dime in space, which had to excite NFL teams interested in developing that innate ability. Doesn't bite on play-fakes and play action as often or as drastically as you might expect; seems to have a pretty good head for where the action is at any time.
Weaknesses: Has a bull rush of sorts based on leverage, but strength is not part of Irvin's game, and if he's not using the speed advantage, he'll get absolutely rag-dolled by the NFL's offensive linemen. He'll also get pulverized when pinching inside to help with inside running plays -- not a strong defender because he'll either outrun or get pushed out of gaps. Struggles to get around tackles with better footwork, even on the outside shoulder or outside the formation.
Needs work on his counter and spin moves -- too often, he's a one-directional player at a position that requires more in the pros. Irvin has a decent counter move inside already, but needs to work on his feet; he'll slow up too often and left the tackle adjust to him. Tends to grapple with blockers too often -- as a speed rusher, he'll have to learn to use his hands to fight his opponents and get acceleration to the ball by pushing off the tackle.
Has a past that needs to be discussed -- Irvin had a rough upbringing and got into real trouble before turning it around, getting his GED, hitting it big in junior college, and continuing the journey to his ultimate dream.
Conclusion: At the press conference announcing the Irvin pick, Pete Carroll talked about finally landing the kid he tried to recruit to USC years ago ... problem was, Irvin was academically ineligible at the time. Unlike Irvin's previous staff, the one led by Carroll sees his future very precisely.
"He immediately is a third down rusher," Carroll said. "He's a guy who plays the LEO position which we have a unique aspect in our defense where Clem [Chris Clemons] plays. This is a spot that calls for speed and up-field kind of pass rush that we covet. Clem has done a great job at it. He'll play with Clem at that position in just the normal situations. Then we've already worked it out, we have opportunities to play them on opposite sides on early downs as well as third downs. We will extend well beyond what you've already heard about him only being a pass rusher. He does more than that. He chases the football, he's physical, he's got great effort. The intensity that he brings, the excitement that he brings — you want him on the field as much as you can get it. So we've already uncovered our ways that we can do that and when we get to camp, it'll start as soon as OTAs."
And that's why the NFL hit on Bruce Irvin while most of us missed. They were looking at what he could be; we were looking at what he was. It's pretty simple.
NFL Comparison: Von Miller, Denver Broncos (embryonic version)