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Irving, Johnson to Compete for Starting Spot

INDIANAPOLIS -- In 2012, two players in particular always seemed to be around the ball on special teams.

Linebackers Nate Irving and Steven Johnson tied for the team lead with 10 special-teams stops for the year. That knack for tackling the ball-carrier will be even more necessary in 2013, when both players are expected to compete for the team's starting middle linebacker spot.

"We're excited about those two," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "They're both guys very capable of handling that job."

Johnson made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012 after leading the team with 15 tackles during the preseason. He was the only Broncos player to record double-digit tackles and register a sack during the preseason.

In the regular season, the majority of the rookie's playing time during his 11 regular-season games came on special teams.

The same could be said for Irving, who played in 15-regular season games in his sophomore season. The N.C. State product did, however, notch the first defensive tackles of his career in 2012.

Irving was originally selected in the 2011 NFL Draft to take over at middle linebacker, and Elway said he expects him to embrace that opportunity in his third season.

"I've got a great deal of confidence in the fact that he's going to come in, once he's given that responsibility, that he'll step up to it," he said. "I think Nate will step in."

Head Coach John Fox echoed that sentiment on Thursday, when he said whether or not Irving takes over at middle linebacker essentially "depend(s) on Nate."

"He's definitely capable," Fox said. "He'll be given an opportunity. I think we have some young players that need to graduate into more playing time, and I feel confident that he'll do that."

A big part of building a championship-caliber team, Elway said, is helping your players improve each and every year. He believes Irving and Johnson can be part of that process.

"As I've said all along, we don't draft All-Pros -- we've got to make All-Pros," Elway said, noting that the team is looking at its own roster first and foremost to fill spots in the lineup. "That's what we're doing with two young guys that people don't know a lot about. But we have high expectations for them to come in and compete for that job. We'll see them in OTAs and see how they handle it."