John Schneider called Bruce Irvin "rare." I call that an understatement because "rare" implies that there are others, if only a few, who are like him. I'm here to tell you why Bruce Irvin is truly unique. On the surface Irvin strongly resembles the likes of Robert Mathis, Chris Clemons, and even Von Miller. A rare type of player indeed. They're all 6-2 or 6-3, 245-255 lbs, and live to sack the quarterback. Yet there are several key differences leaving Irvin without a clean NFL comparison. Those differences will either make him a one-of-a-kind probowl caliber player or limit him to the role of a situational pass rusher.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, I see Clemons as the best comparison. I say that mostly because of their demeanor of play. Both Mathis and Miller play with an snap-to-snap intensity that I don't see from Clemons and Irvin. This doesn't mean they take plays off but our guys appear more opportunistic in nature. Both men are very adept at setting up tackles with a progression of varying moves. Clemons in particular has an remarkable feel for weakness in the opposing tackle and is capable of taking over a game if it's there. Irvin showed similar opportunist tendencies, which helped make him so deadly on third down.
The differences are in their build. Clemons is more thickly built and especially through his core. This goes deeper than their weight disparity where Clemons has a ~8 lb advantage. Clemons' legs and arms are long like Irvin's but more closely set, giving him a surprisingly powerful base. Irvin is wider set, giving him more lateral agility. This could help Irvin evade blockers and provide pressure more consistently than Clemons. But even if he adds bulk and reaches Clemons' lofty level of technique, he's perhaps a bit less equipped for setting the edge against the run.
Mathis is a DE like Irvin and Clemons (unlike Miller). At 245, he also plays closer to Irvin's weight than Clemons does at 254. Despite a mediocre 4.72 40 time, Mathis reaches the edge with incredible consistency. He achieves that consistency with something of a counter from the inside. His get-off is fast and he doesn't waste any steps to the corner, yet his body language tells the tackle he's going inside. Then he dips his head back outside in one fluid motion. Irvin didn't show such refinement in college but he possesses the fluidity and lateral movement necessary for this type of move. Hopefully he can develop it.
Despite their similar weight, Mathis is an inch shorter than Irvin and noticeably thicker. This strength helps Mathis drive through blocks once he's gained an advantage. Irvin doesn't share this trait by any stretch. Irvin either beats his man or is pushed into orbit. His wiry build accounts for some of that. But it's also an attitude issue. When Mathis gets even a whiff of daylight, he's going all out for the sack. I would like to see Irvin keep his balance and stick with the play better.
From a physical stand point, Miller is the closest comparison with Irvin. Both men are about 6-3, 245, with long arms, and unreal speed and flexibility. They both give new meaning to the term "speed rusher." I actually wonder if Irvin could surpass Miller's edge rushing prowess given his opportunity to coil into a three or four point stance. He will require some Chris Clemons snap anticipation and Robert Mathis leg drive to make it happen, but the potential is there. Irvin and Miller also share a nice plant-and-drive counter back inside after threatening the edge.
Miller distinguishes himself from Irvin with his hand strength/use and understanding of leverage. At this point Irvin is all head bob and stutter step. He flashes precision with his hand placement but overall he needs a lot more activity from them. As a rookie, Miller's hands and pad level allowed him to surprise as a run defender and work past blockers despite his small frame. Irvin's hands simply aren't as strong as Miller's but better hand use would go a long ways toward keeping blockers off his body.
After the jump I'll give my final thoughts on what stands between Bruce Irvin and the success level of these three speed rushers. In conclusion I'll give my take on what could make him a truly unique and special talent.
Irvin keeping his off-field issues in the past would be a huge step toward becoming a successful NFL player. It almost goes without saying but the importance of this is difficult to overstate. Pete and John talked about appreciating the tough road he's taken and how that can build character. I share that sentiment. There's still ample reason for concern though. Even a minor mistake could start a snow ball effect. Such mistakes have a way of building on each other, as we've seen happen with Leroy Hill's various missteps.
The other yet recognized area for improvement is developing a spin move. Clemons, Miller, and Mathis all have deadly spin moves. I'm not sure Irvin even attempted a spin move in his collegiate career. It may seem like "just one more pass rush move," but for such an undersized DE, it's essential to have as many ways past a blocker as possible. If Irvin fails then it won't be because he didn't add a spin move but doing so would certainly help his development.
Finally let's get to what could set Irvin apart. In short, Irvin's combination of length, explosiveness, and flexibility is maybe only matched by Von Miller in the NFL today. However his fluidity and lateral movement is what could make him truly special. Irvin puts moves on OTs that you might expect from an elusive WR in the open field. It almost seems unfair at times. This ability needs refinement though. He often wastes too many steps in pursuit of evasion, rather than the quarterback.
If Bruce Irvin can develop in these areas then it's easy to envision him as one of the league's best pass rushers. Only time will tell whether he pans out and can inherit the starting Leo role. But for now I'm excited about the Seahawks' 2012 first round pick. Any other NFL players to draw parallels from?