Free-agency breakdown: Nate Irving

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have one of the longer lists of free agents in the league and just under a week out from the formal opening of the NFL’s festival of checks, it’s a good time to take a one-a-day look at some of the impending Broncos’ free agents.

Today: Nate Irving

Friday: Jacob Tamme

When the Broncos selected Irving in the third round of the 2011 draft -- a draft class that yielded seven players who started games for the team, including Irving -- they saw him as the future option at middle linebacker. And he indeed was that; it just was four seasons before that really came to fruition.

Along the way to that point Irving always seemed to be on the fringe of the defensive plan. In 2011, his rookie season, the Broncos put him immediately into the competition at middle linebacker with Joe Mays, but it was clear fairly quickly that Mays’ experience would win him the job.

In 2013 Irving filled in at strong ide linebacker during Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season. That was after Irving couldn’t work himself into the mix at middle linebacker once again during training camp. The Broncos opted to put Wesley Woodyard there.

But Irving kept working, and the Broncos kept seeing a player who improved his ability to take on blocks and to play, as former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, “with really strong hands, good physicality." As a result it was Irving who was in the lineup at middle linebacker when the regular-season opened last September.

Now, Irving is on the doorstep of free agency, coming off knee surgery. The Broncos have switched defensive schemes, from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 set to be run by Wade Phillips. With that change, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has already said he envisions Brandon Marshall at the middle linebacker position as one of the two inside linebackers in that 3-4.

Elway added Danny Trevathan, who is coming off a season with three different left leg injuries, is expected to be the weakside linebacker at the other inside linebacker spot. That doesn’t leave room for Irving in the starting mix.

Irving had played 349 snaps in the Broncos’ first eight games last season -- 32.6 percent of the season’s total -- when he suffered his knee injury Nov. 2 against the New England Patriots. He was moved to injured reserve shortly after that.

At the time Broncos coach John Fox said of Irving’s knee: “There’s too much going on in there to think he is just going to rehab it. We want to get it taken care of .... [Surgery] was a consideration the whole time. I think we became aware of it when some of the swelling came down that this would be the best way to pursue it going forward."

Irving had surgery and has been rehabbing since. It was clear at the scouting combine in Indianapolis last month Irving will likely draw some interest from other teams. Privately, several personnel executives said Irving was the kind of player they were hunting for -- someone with versatility, special-teams experience and just coming up on his second NFL contract.

Since Travathan is coming off an injury-cratered 2014 season, the Broncos would like to re-sign Irving after the initial surge of free agency dies down. But like so many of the Broncos players set for the open market, Irving is expected to draw enough interest from other teams that the Broncos might not get that chance.