Thursday, April 26, 2012

Defending the Bruce Irvin Pick

After coolly trading down to snatch up extra late-round picks (a mid-4th and a mid-6th), the Seattle Seahawks have sent the league into an incredulous tizzy by selecting DE Bruce Irvin out of West Virginia - a guy that, in defiance of the talking-head community, was projected as a Top 15 pick by at least seven teams, according to a PFT source.

Though I haven't done any scouting of the guy myself (although Kip Earlywine has, even if he didn't anticipate first-round interest - but who did?), I've been as able as anyone to pick up on the basic motifs of why people think this is an enormous reach:

1. He's not Melvin Ingram.

2. He's a pure pass rusher, and won't play three downs.

3. He's not Quinton Coples.

4. His production dropped off last year.

5. He's not Courtney Upshaw.

6. He's got off-the-field issues.

If your response is an odd number, please slap yourself in the face with a large trout. Fair discussion involves Irvin on his own merit, not why you didn't get your guy.

The most sensical worry for me is #2. Some have called Bruce Irvin "the best pure pass rusher in the draft", and that title carries both excitement and doubt. The paradigm for the first round is to look for complete players, guys who can rush the passer without sacrificing rush stoutness. Bruce Irvin is not such a three-down player. Pete has already tagged him a Leo. His role is to bring down quarterbacks, plain and simple.

However, if you're calling this a reach because Irvin is a pure pass rusher, you're ignoring recent draft history. Paradigms change and the NFL has become a pass-happy glut of passing passfests, with unprepared QB's going in the top 12 picks and pass rushers gaining more and more value. Jason Pierre-Paul and Aldon Smith, both guys that relied on athleticism and were tagged as pure pass rushers (or sure busts), also went higher than draftniks expected.

Neither team is regretting their picks right now. Their teams schemed them into success, found ways to get them into the backfield. The result has been double-digit sacks and a balancing of power in their respective divisions. A move like Irvin is surprising, but not without recent precedent. As the league shifts toward the pass, expect defensive priorities to shift with it.

Another team that's shown savvy with scheming pass rushers is the Seahawks, who in 2010 traded a more complete defensive end in Darryl Tapp in order to pick up Chris Clemons. The latter has been immensely productive for Seattle over two years despite being the line's only major source of pass rush. He has not compromised the defense by being terrible against the run, nor has he struggled by being somewhat underweight (both red flags against Irvin, who produced in college despite similar size). That speaks to Seattle's scheming on the defensive line.

Now, if Seattle can coax around 20 sacks from a late-20s defensive end without elite speed, what could they coax from a rookie who ran a 4.4 at the Combine?

Pete and John are throwing around some pretty distinguished names in comparison to Irvin. They've talked about his uniqueness, compared his speed to Jevon Kearse, evoked the burst of Von Miller, and announced a desire to deploy Irvin like Clay Matthews. Those are easy things to say from a podium, but they give us a framework and a hint of (surprise, surprise) an evil plan. They also don't have the same definitions for "3-down player" that you or I do, and for good reason. With defense rapidly becoming a mental game of chess against quarterbacks, pre-snap motion and confusing looks are becoming the name of the game. Mike Mayock rightly called our defense an "amoeba", similar to how Rex Ryan twists his defense. Count on Pete to find ways to get Irvin involved in all phases of the defense, including 1st and 2nd down. And with Clemons getting up there in age and likely to leave the lineup sooner rather than later, Irvin will find his playing time.

Irvin also deserves recognition for his upside. For those pointing out his lack of 2011 production, from what I've read, his relatively quiet 2011 has been placed on the shoulders of his coaching and scheming. Like Brandon Mebane or Jason Jones, Irvin was used last year in ways that don't fit his gifts, such as 3-4 defensive end. He hasn't been infused with a wide variety of pass-rush moves, and that's something that can be improved at the pro level. I've seen it argued that his coaches treated him as an instinctive player who would end up thinking too much if his game got too complicated - maybe. I don't know. But I certainly don't see a polished, finished product with only two years of decent football ahead of him, a la Tim Ruskell's picks.

It sounds for all the world like Bruce Irvin perfectly fits Seattle's vision for pass rush, and would very likely be at least a second-rounder if not for the off-the-field red flags. Pete Carroll coveted him for USC, knows him well, and we know he's not dogmatically put off by off-the-field concerns (therefore dealing with motif #6). Also, frankly, I'm relieved to see him NOT wringing his hands over run defense for once - plenty of talent in that area already on this defense. We didn't need our first-round pick to be complete; we needed our defense to be complete. Irvin might do that. The NFL is becoming a specialist's game, and in his singular role, Irvin could excel.

For those who were fine with taking Irvin in a later round - you have to remember that we aren't privy to teams' big boards. Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network has said that Irvin wasn't going to get past San Francisco's first round pick, and they know a thing or two about defense. There was the PFT source saying that at least seven teams were expecting Irvin to go in the Top 15. Teams rate players differently than draftniks - James Carpenter was bound to be taken within three picks of where Seattle got him - and that's a big factor in how teams decide their picks. Seattle got their guy when he was available, and even had the cool-headedness to slip down the board a bit and pile on the late-round picks while waiting.

And once again, in this day and age of football, being able to consistently get to the QB has a tendency to boost your draft stock almost automatically, regardless of what else you can do. This pick has to be viewed through that filter.

Besides...if this front office can coax Pro Bowlers out of 5th rounders and CFL imports, is anyone really THAT worried?