Tennessee DE Robert Ayers (photo source)
As the 2009 NFL Draft approaches, the editorial staff at Buffalo Rumblings will begin profiling draft prospects that may end up being potential targets of the Buffalo Bills. With defensive end - and more prudently, the lackluster pass rush - still a top priority in Buffalo, Tennessee DE Robert Ayers is a player whose stock is getting hot at the right time; he is now widely considered a serious consideration for the Bills with their No. 11 overall pick.
Earlier this week, I
penned typed up an article detailing my belief that the Buffalo Bills would pass on drafting a DE early in this year's draft. I stand by that argument - but no argument is bulletproof. Considering the rapid ascent of Robert Ayers up draft boards, the UT product is looking more like the bullet that shatters my belief on a daily basis.
Who is this Robert Ayers character? Where did he come from, and what has caused his draft stock to soar at precisely the right time? Is he a fit in Buffalo? We did a lot of research on this one, folks, and we were helped out tremendously by two terrific Ayers-centric reports from SB Nation's Tennessee athletics blog, Rocky Top Talk. Here's everything you need to know about Ayers - currently NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock's fifth-ranked prospect (not end) available.
Robert Ayers - Defensive End, Tennessee
6'3", 272 pounds, 4.80-second 40 yard dash
Strengths: Underrated athlete... Solid frame with good overall build, particularly in the lower body... Tremendous use of his hands... Excellent in pursuit, and has made plenty of plays in the backfield despite low sack totals... Physical, aggressive defender that does very well in the run game... Very good in space, with good agility and read abilities... Has shown the ability to break down and change directions quickly... Can stack and shed with the best of them... Has a good amount of untapped potential.
Weaknesses: Not a natural edge rusher... Lacks an explosive first step to work the edge consistently... Must rely on timing and power to provide pass rush, though he'll need to develop more moves to become consistent in this area... Some durability concerns (shoulder injuries and a broken hand)... College production leaves something to be desired... Work ethic concerns... Bit of a "boom or bust" prospect.
Why has he risen up draft charts?
At the close of the 2008-09 college football season, Ayers was widely considered a day one pick, but most had him pegged as a mid-to-late second round pick. Around four months later, Ayers is a virtual lock to be a first-round pick, and some even believe he could sneak into the Top 10. How the heck does that even happen?
Simple - Ayers blew up at the Senior Bowl. During the highly-publicized practice sessions, Ayers dominated top-flight OT prospect Michael Oher. He displayed all of the positive traits mentioned above in practice sessions, then went out and recorded 1.5 sacks and a game-changing turnover (which led to a TD) during the game. Coupled with great personal interviews and solid Combine and Pro Day workouts, Ayers' stock has been on a steady rise since late January.
But what of his reported character concerns? His fit with the Bills? His perceived value at No. 11? We cover all that and more after the jump.
Ayers was arrested in 2005 (along with current Patriots LB Jerod Mayo) and charged with aggravated assault. He was also never a model student at Tennessee, frequently flirting with academic ineligibility early in his career. Ayers' collegiate run was a rocky one, but he eventually emerged as a team captain, graduated from the University, and is reportedly now as humble and determined as rookie prospects come. Rocky Top Talk documented Ayers' rocky journey in a tremendous piece last week; here are a few snippets:
Players like "The Future" Kelley Washington had set the tone in previous years with a "me and the NFL" attitude, and several Vols had come to believe that the orange on their backs was a caste mark indicating their inevitable ascension to the country's premier sports league. College was a time to lift weights, look good, keep reasonably out of trouble (with a loose definition of "reasonable"), and prep for the millions of dollars coming down the pike. That was not the environment Ayers needed at the time. Like so many college kids, time away from home was time to fuel the bad habits that hadn't been eliminated yet.
For all of his neck-hugging and butt-kicking, (Philip) Fulmer had a hard time getting through to Ayers in the early years. It's not hard to understand why: when a self-admittedly immature 19-year old has a few coaches telling him to grow up, a whole team of players fueling his playful instincts, and a seemingly inevitable track to the NFL Draft, one of the two messages is at a severe disadvantage.
Somewhere in the middle of the uncertainty, the humility, the academic issues, and the inevitable nearing of the end of a college career, Ayers began to realize that racuous living had a very short shelf life. Slowly (and probably very painfully at times), he began to develop the personal maturity that he had lacked previously. There is little mention in news articles about the turnaround in these years, but reading articles about Ayers prior to 2006 compared to articles written after 2007 shows a complete turnaround: the timbre changed from writing about a physically gifted kid with little room for sense to a beast of a man who was a team leader and on pace to graduate.
NFL comparison: Mike Rucker, Carolina Panthers (retired)
I've seen Ayers play a few times, and I always thought he greatly resembled former Panthers DE Mike Rucker. They have similar builds (Rucker is 6'5", 275 pounds), similar body structure, and similar athletic traits. Rucker enjoyed a stellar nine-year career in Carolina, where he accumulated 55.5 career sacks (two seasons with double digit sack totals) and, playing next to Julius Peppers, established himself as one of the more underrated ends in the league - and he always played the run well, too. I believe Ayers' career, if things go well, could play out in a very similar fashion.
Does Ayers "Fit the Bill"?
We have discussed at length the difference of opinion between most fans and the current regime in Buffalo over the type of athlete the Bills need at end. The simple fact of the matter is that the Bills prefer well-rounded defensive ends - they're willing to sacrifice a little speed and an edge-rusher's mentality for a guy who hustles, plays the run and the pass well, and can contribute heavily in both situations. Like it or not, Ayers is the only first-round defensive end prospect that fits that description.
But to label Ayers as a run-first defensive end is a bit unfair. True, his sack totals left a lot to be desired, but he also recorded double-digit tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Tennessee. He will probably never be an elite sack artist at the NFL level - but that doesn't mean he won't be able to pick up sacks and make plays. Depending on how he transitions to the NFL game, Ayers might come into Buffalo and immediately be the team's second-best end - and Aaron Schobel only takes the cake there because of his name.
Wrap your minds around it, folks - Ayers is going to be the highest-rated end on Buffalo's board. He's big, powerful, plays the run and the pass well, and fits their defensive system. He has the potential to be an above-average contributor right out of the gate. He's got the tools to eventually put up 8-10 sacks per year as a Bill. Is he what everyone wants? Very, very clearly not. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't be effective as a rookie. That's what it's all about - finding a contributor. If the team believes Ayers is that guy, Ayers should be the pick. Who knows - maybe we'll grow to like it. (And hey - Rocky Top Talk thinks he'd be a pretty good fit here, too.) As for me - I'd be satisfied with an Ayers selection. Not giddy - but you certainly won't need to talk me off the ledge. I think he's going to be a very good pro.
Ayers video - again courtesy Rocky Top Talk