Nate Irving was just coming into his own as an NFL inside linebacker when a 2014 season-ending knee injury set him back.
He had started the first eight games for the Denver Broncos before a torn right anterior cruciate ligament deprived him of being healthy. The Indianapolis Colts were still sold on him and forked out $7.25 million for three years to land the free agent.
Problem is, as 2015 revealed, Irving needed time to rehabilitate that knee. He played in eight games, two as a starter, with 14 tackles and one sack last season.
A year removed from surgery and offseason rehabilitation, Irving reported for offseason training activities with the health he hasn’t had since his Denver days. The Colts let Jerrell Freeman walk in free agency, which means there’s a job opportunity. Irving and veteran Sio Moore are the likely options to take that spot.
“This is the first offseason I’ve been able to work out and focus on getting better instead of rehabbing for like two years,” said Irving, 27. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of coming back and going through the process.”
He had made a career-best 46 tackles in those eight starts with the Broncos before the injury. His lone sack in 2014 came against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the season opener.
“Oh man, I feel like I barely scratched the surface,” Irving said of his final season with the Broncos. “I just thank God for the opportunity to be healthy and the chance I have out here. Like I said, I’m ready to be out here.”
Irving understands the NFL reality of expectation. When teams pay millions for free agents, those players are expected to produce. That’s why he’ll undoubtedly have every opportunity to win the job, presumably in a competition with Moore, a former third-round pick of the Oakland Raiders who was acquired for a sixth-round pick last season. Moore played in 12 games as a reserve with the Colts.
“That’s life,” Irving said of expectations. “You have to produce when you’re paid to produce. If not, you get ran out of here.”
It’s also possible the Colts will look to draft an inside linebacker this weekend. Leading tackler D'Qwell Jackson returns for his 11th NFL season, but he turns 33 in September. The Colts could be looking to the future by bolstering the position.
“Management is going to make the best decisions,” Irving said. “I can’t control that. What I can control is when I come in here, what I do and how I produce.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.