Cowboys Draft Prospects: Nate Irving

We follow up our look at Greg Lloyd, a two-down, run-plugging ILB, with another of the same ilk: NC State ILB Nate Irving. In 2010, the 6-1, 242 pound Irving received numerous honors for his play; he was tabbed as a first-team All-ACC performer, second-team Walter Camp All-American and was a semifinalist for the 2010 Butkus Award. This is all particularly impressive given that he missed the 2009 season after sustaining multiple injuries in a car accident in late June, in which he nearly died. Irving suffered a collapsed lung, a broken rib, a separated shoulder and a compound fracture in his leg in the accident--and battled back from them to become a major contributor last season. In what should probably raise a red flag, Irving's body is pretty banged up: he missed substantial parts of the 2008 season with injuries.

That said, when Irving's on the field, he appears to be a versatile player who can man all the linebacker positions--he finished his collegiate career as an inside linebacker, but he has experience on the outside. Moreover, he's got check marks next to all the positive intangibles - a team leader, the kind of guys other players rally around, loves to mix it up and is a hard worker. On the other hand, he's hardly an elite athlete: his change of direction skills, speed and acceleration are all average--although this is mitigated by his ability to diagnose and find the ball. You can see this in full flower in these highlights from the Georgia Tech game and in this collection of plays as well.

More below...

Irving decided not to work out at the NFL Combine, but did do all drills at N.C. State's Pro Day, where he registered respectable marks in the forty (4.74), the bench (27 reps), and 3-cone drill (6.97) but showed his limited explosiveness with middling vertical (32.5 inches) and broad jump (8-11) scores. Perhaps because of these limitations, Irving hasn't exactly been overwhelmed with interest by NFL teams--although linebackers coaches from the Ravens, Panthers and Bucs were in attendance at NC State's pro day.

Before we speculate about just where we might expect Irving to come off the board, lets take a look at what some top-flight Internet draft gurus have to say about his game.

National Football Post (Wes Bunting) 5th-rated ILB 202nd overall

A physical, wrap-up tackler who possesses impressive lower body strength with the ability to drive his legs through contact. Exhibits a good first step but displays only average straight-line speed in pursuit. However, he reads and reacts quickly to the play and is consistently getting good jumps on the football. Does a great job playing with leverage when taking on linemen in the hole and holding his ground at the point of attack. Is consistently working his way toward the play, even through contact, and uses his hands well to stack shed when needed. Also, plays the piano well down the line and keeps himself clean when shuffling his way through traffic.

Showcases decent footwork in his drop but lacks range and is really stiff hipped when trying to get out of his breaks. At times is forced to turn his back to the play in order to get proper depth and isn't a guy who will be able to athletically hold up in space. Also, lacks great awareness and has a tendency to lose track of receivers behind him. Needs to do a better job feeling routes develop around him. Missed the 2009 season due to injuries he suffered in a car accident prior to the start of the year and it will be interesting to see if he has regained his form from 2008.

Impression: A physical linebacker who knows how to win at the point of attack and consistently finds the football. Have the makings of making a roster and fighting for playing time as a two down backer down the line.

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 7th-rated ILB; overall unknown (not in top 99)

Strengths: Has good overall size, arm length and growth potential for the position at the NFL level. Plays bigger than his listed size. Is an instinctive, aggressive and physical run defender along the line of scrimmage and within the box area. Has strong, quick hands to shock, then shed from blocks. Has a definite short-area burst to close to the ball in front of him. Shows good power with production as a pass rusher. Is tough and competitive in all situations.

Weaknesses: Has had many significant injuries. Shows poor change-of-direction ability on the move in the open field. Is a liability in both zone and man-to-man coverage. Does not possess strong value to consider as a special teams player.

Bottom line
: Irving started two years for the Wolfpack, but had to sit out the 2009 campaign after an auto accident that left him with a separated shoulder, cracked rib, punctured lung and fractured leg. He is an aggressive and physical finisher of plays in all situations. Irving deserves late fourth-round consideration by a team that runs a 3-4 defensive alignment only, as he lacks the athletic ability and speed to play in a 4-3 scheme.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 8th-rated OLB; 106th overall

Positives: Has good size with long arms and large hands. Very tough and instinctive. Generally plays on his feet with good body control. Triggers quickly and plays faster than he times. Runs downhill. Effective run blitzer. Takes good angles in pursuit. Chases hard and hits with pop—good wrap tackler. Productive and disruptive when healthy. Highly intense and competitive. Loves football and has a sense for the game. Good character.

Negatives: Below-average timed speed. Average suddenness and explosion. Does not have acceleration to range sideline to sideline. Can play with better pad level. Overruns some plays and shows tightness in his hips—struggles to come to balance and tackle in space. Looks more natural outside—tries to slip and avoid instead of facing up blocks and most of his production is clear view. Stiff in coverage. Durability and injury history need to be looked into—has a metal rod in his leg dating back to his car accident.

Summary: Persevered from a life-threatening car accident and not only returned to the field, but was a playmaker for the Wolfpack during a healthy senior season despite playing out of position inside. Is not the same athlete he was pre-accident and is not a prototype linebacker—lacks ideal strength for the strong-side, take-on strength for the middle and speed for the weak side—but is a solid football player with a good motor who could make a roster as a swing backup.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 7th-rated ILB; 140th overall

Instincts/Recognition: Above-average instincts. Locates the ball quickly and can beat blockers to the point of attack. Disciplined and reads keys. Quickly recognizes play action and misdirection. Flashes the ability to read quarterback in underneath zone coverage but shows better instincts defending the run than does dropping into coverage. Route recognition is average to below average. Can get caught locking on receiver and lose track of the ball.

Strength/Toughness: Willing to step up and meet lead blockers in the hole when teams run at him but can run around blocks when chasing. Attacks blockers with proper shoulder and can uncoil in the phone booth. However, above average upper body strength that showed on pro day doesn't always translate on film. Inconsistent punch and takes too long to get off blocks once reached. Can get engulfed by interior offensive linemen.

Range vs. Run: Good initial burst and can make plays in the backfield. Sideline-to-sideline run defender with above average straight-line speed and a non-stop motor. However, struggles to redirect when doesn't take sound pursuit angle and not fluid enough to quickly sift though traffic when chasing the run

Tackling: Looks to rip the ball out in gang tackle situations. Flashes the ability to deliver the big hit but an inconsistent tackler. Doesn't always wrap up and can wrap too high when he does. Doesn't show great athletic ability or body control in space. Can get caught trying to make an arm tackle or whiff.

3rd Down Capabilities: Typically gets good depth in drops and has enough range to hold up in a scheme that features the Tampa-2. While didn't record a pick last year, has big hands and showed aboveaverage ball skills in 2008. Has experience rushing off the edge. Closes quickly and can get to the quarterback with second effort but not a great hand fighter when rushing the passer. Not fluid enough to set up offensive linemen in one direction and then redirect quickly. Adequate hip fluidity and can run with tight ends but struggles to make crisp cut and will likely allow too much separation in man coverage.

Intangibles: Elected captain by teammates in 2010. Showed determination and toughness in bouncing back from horrific car crash. Took on a valuable leadership role while sidelined in 2009. Named team's most valuable linebacker in 2008 and 2010. Co-recipient of ACC's Brian Piccolo Award, which is given to the most courageous player in the league. Named Ken McNeill Iron Wolf award winner for greatest comeback from injury in 2010. Coaches rave about commitment to the game. Graduated with a degree program management in December of 2010.

After watching his highlights, I came away impressed by Irving's ability to diagnose plays, find the ball and wrap up ballcarriers. No, he's not a deluxe physical specimen--but neither is Bart Scott, who has fashioned a very solid pro career as a tough, between-the-tackles run stopper. If Irving can approximate Scott's toughness, dedication and game-day ferocity, I'd take him in a heartbeat--Dalas current group of defenders needs a couple of tough, fiery guys at its center.

At the same time, it looks like Irving could be exploited in the passing game so, until he works on his coverage skills, he'd be relegated to two-down territory. As such, I have a hard time envisioning him going before the fourth round. Consequently, I'm going to slot him in round five, where the Cowboys currently have the 143rd selection.

Next up: Illinois LB Martez WIlson

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