Colts linebacker Nate Irving looking for more in 2nd season

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Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tries to escape from Nate Irving #55 of the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 29, 2015. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The investment was made last offseason and everyone realized patience would be required.

Free-agent linebacker Nate Irving relocated from Denver to Indianapolis with a three-year, $7.25 million contract in March 2015, but still was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament that forced him to miss the final half of the ’14 season.

His first season with the Colts involved eight games, two as a starter, and 18 tackles.

“I don’t think Nate was ever 100 percent coming off the knee,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “I think right now he feels better than he’s ever felt from a physical standpoint since the surgery.’’

Consider it perfect timing.

Among the Colts’ objectives during their four-week organized team activities is finding a suitable replacement for starting weak-side linebacker Jerrell Freeman. He’s now patrolling the middle for the Chicago Bears.

With Freeman gone, the starting spot alongside D’Qwell Jackson is up for grabs.

“There’s great competition there,’’ Pagano said.

The mix includes Irving, Sio Moore, Amarlo Herrera, Junior Sylvestre, Edwin Jackson and perhaps rookie Antonio Morrison.

Irving and Moore would seem to be the frontrunners. Like Irving, Moore is in his second year with the team – the Colts acquired him in a September trade with Oakland – and brings experience. He started 22 of 36 games with the Raiders in 2013-14. Last season, Moore’s contributions were meager – nine tackles in 12 games.

Irving is motivated by his inability to play at full strength last season.

“I knew I was better than I was putting out there,’’ he told “But the competitor in me wanted to go out and compete as soon as I was able to.

“I even knew that it was too soon, but I just wanted to play football.’’

He should get that opportunity this season.

The Colts need someone to step up and be a suitable complement to Jackson. He’s led the team in tackles in each of his first two seasons – 184 in 2014 after signing as a free-agent from Cleveland, a career-best 193 last season – but can be a liability in pass coverage.

Also, Jackson turns 33 in September and management wants to get younger, particularly on defense.

Irving, 27, began to emerge as a force on Denver’s stout 2014 defense before suffering a season-ending knee injury Nov. 2 against New England. He started the first eight games and had a career-high 44 tackles and one sack.

The Colts saw snippets of Irving last season, and anticipate more this year.

“They say eight, nine, 10 months on an ACL, then it’s completely healed,’’ Pagano told “But until you get back out on the grass and get confidence in that thing, until you have a year under your belt and you’ve played and you’ve practice day after day after day and the thing doesn’t swell on you and you don’t have setbacks, you’re never really totally 100 percent healthy.

“I think he’s going to enter (training camp) feeling the best that he’s felt in a long, long time which will give him a chance to be successful.’’

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