Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
6’4″, 255 lbs.
Playmaker. If I was to describe the essence of Ayers as a football player in only one word, that would be the one I would use. As a comparison, Von Miller’s word would be slick, Justin Houston’s would be blur, Robert Quinn’s would be gorilla, and Aldon Smith’s would be stretch. Stretching the comparisons to the limit of silliness, if each of the top outside linebackers were Marvel superheroes, Houston would be Quicksilver, Quinn would be Beast, Da’Quan Bowers would be the Hulk, Smith would be Mr. Fantastic, Miller would be Iron Man or Spider-Man (take your pick–crafty, fast, stronger than they look), and Ayers would be Daredevil. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been playing the utterly addictive Marvel versus Capcom 3 this week.
Back to Ayers, he’s a walking highlight-reel. The Daredevil persona is apt because Ayers has an instinctive yet unstudied, as well as highly aggressive and gambling playing style that can provide a spectacle. The flip-side of the walking highlight-reel is that there are usually quite a few lowlights scattered throughout his performances too. After all, some of those attempts at the big hits have to end with an ugly miss, and Ayers has had his share of those. But the bottom line is that Ayers has made an awful lot of big plays throughout his career, and racked up quite a few personal honors in process. For his outstanding 2009 and 2010 seasons, he was named to multiple All-American teams and the All Pac-10 team this season. His career numbers are impressive stuff: 181 tackles, 27.5 for loss, 13 sacks, six interceptions, 10 passes broken up, five fumbles forced, two defensive touchdowns, and one blocked punt which led to a touchdown. He shows up on each part of the box score, a reflection of his Swiss Army knife set of tools. What’s more, most of Ayers’ best games were the biggest on UCLA’s schedule. He flashed against 23rd ranked Houston in 2009, played well against a fourth ranked Stanford this year, was personally dominant against seventh ranked Texas, and took home MVP honors for his bowl game against Temple last season.
Fortunately, we’ve got cutup videos of two of those specific performances courtesy of Aaron Aloysius and fellow youtube user MARI0clp.
vs. Temple (2009) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5OeiwZVjzI
vs. Stanford (2010) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q14Px6MLRfk
One of the first things that popped out at me from those clips is Ayers’ impressive set of athletic tools. For such a heavy and high cut player he’s a remarkably gifted runner. Leggy athletes tend to lack flexibility and fluidity, especially in their hips. That isn’t the case with Ayers though, as he glides around the field like a natural linebacker. Ayers’ poor 40 yard dash time at the combine (4.82) doesn’t really give me concerns about his speed. Rey Maualuga was another huge, powerful linebacker that timed poorly at the combine and I didn’t for one minute think he was slow. It only takes watching Ayers for a few plays to see how naturally agile and fluid he is. In the instances where he got to blitz or line up as a defensive end, Ayers also flashed an explosive first few steps and excellent closing speed.
Ayers looks like the biggest player on the field. He measured a 6030 and 254 pounds at the combine, with 33 inch arms. It’s clear from looking at how long-limbed and broad Ayers is that this is a player who could easily carry another 15-20 pounds. But if you’re targeting him to play linebacker, would you even need him to? He already hulks over tight ends, how much bigger does he need to be? Then again, when has any dominant athlete ever been too big for football? If you had a 270 pound inside linebacker that could run like a man 30 pounds lighter, wouldn’t you want that? So many questions he raises because he’s a confoundingly good athlete. It also goes without saying that a 4-3 team targeting him as a defensive end will value his room to add bulk.
I get the sense from watching Ayers that his rare athleticism actually gets him into trouble at times. He tries things he shouldn’t. He’ll close too quickly on the ball because he’s athletic enough to make sprawling tackles off his frame. Even still, he’ll end up reaching to make arm tackles and get shrugged off. This is part of a wider hole in Ayers’ game, as he’s merely a mediocre tackler at this stage in his development. His NFL coaches are going to have their work cut out for them in getting him to harness his raw power within good wrap-up form. Ayers is an instinctive player without playing with an especially high level of awareness. He’ll make big plays on sheer instinct but sometimes he’ll be slow to read keys, have trouble sifting through trash blocks or forget to protect his legs, take poor angles, and leave himself vulnerable to a slashing runner. I wouldn’t say Ayers is a freelancer by any stretch. He’s not a knucklehead and he checks himself short of blowing off his gap assignments to try and make a play. He’s conscientious about his assignments, and he probably makes more big plays in the end because of it. He can function at a high level within the schema of your defense, which is something that a lot of big play linebackers like Ayers struggle with. But, when he’s in pursuit he does have a tendency to press and over-pursue or take bad angles, plus he’s got an improvising and unorthodox style as a tackler. That isn’t always a good thing. Lowering your shoulder and delivering the knockout is appropriate at times. At other times the attempt will only lead to a missed tackle or a failure to impede forward progress and you see this happen with Ayers more than you’d like.
Suffice to say, Ayers still has a lot of room in his game to improve. But there’s enough there already for him to be taken in the first 50 selections. For one thing, Ayers is an extremely powerful linebacker. When he gets a bead on a runner, he’s a devastating striker. He’s probably the hardest hitting linebacker in this year’s class. To find someone in college football who hits with the kind of violence he does, you probably have to look at the youtube sensation underclassmen like Vontaze Burfict, Manti Te’o, and Ronnell Lewis. Ayers is also exceptionally physical when taking on blockers. There are several plays peppered throughout those highlight videos where Ayers annihilates a lead blocker or tight end. He’s got long arms, quick hands, and a great deal of upperbody strength. He bends fairly well and keeps his pad level down, particularly so for such a high cut athlete. He extends his arms well, can punch hard, and he typically doesn’t have a lot of trouble freeing himself whether he’s stacking up blockers or trying to turn a corner on an edge rush. And when he decides to shut down a running lane he can blow it up like a dropping bomb. For a chuckle, watch what Ayers does to Stanford’s first team All-American center Chase Beeler starting at the 1:10 mark of the Stanford video.
I think Ayers’ pitch of violence and intensity is a really underrated quality in a linebacker. A linebacker like Martez Wilson is nice because he’s a phenomenally gifted athlete and can cast a net across the whole field. But his lack of striking power diminishes his playmaking impact. Having a violent player like Ayers is essential to setting a physical tone with your front seven. Great 3-4 defenses typically have a linebacker who can do this. These types of players help you win a battle of attrition over the course of the game. They soften an offensive line and make ballcarriers nervous. Not to mention, big hits cause fumbles and the hallmark of Jim Haslett’s defense is big hitting and playmaking. During the first few weeks of the season while the defense was making plays, the Redskins beat much better teams by wearing them out with superior physicality on defense. The unit had a somewhat ignominious streak of knocking opposing star players out of games during the first half of the season. Adding Ayers would toss gasoline on the fire.
I’ve spent the majority of the writeup talking about Ayers’ ability in run defense, but I don’t want to give the impression that’s all he brings to the table. Ayers’ biggest strength is his remarkable versatility. He can and does line up everywhere on the field. He seems equally comfortable play in a two or three point stance, playing on the line or in the stack. He can blitz, contain, anchor, or drop into zones or man cover slot receivers, backs, and tight ends. He’s a true swiss army knife. Personally, my favorite plays are the ones where he lines up in a nine technique and blitzes and I think that’ll probably be his home position and role in an NFL 3-4. Then if you needed to mix things up and have him man cover the tight end he could make the adjustment pretty seamlessly. Yet Ayers is such a balanced, fluid, and instinctive linebacker that a coordinator could have no fear of putting him in the middle of the stack the whole time and have him drop into zone coverages on passing downs. That’s rare. Especially from a player with a defensive end’s frame. It’s nice that Ayers can stay on the field for nickel and dime packages.
Finally, Ayer’s biggest room for development is most definitely as a pass rusher. He’s still more of a blitzer than a well rounded rusher. He didn’t have a lot of opportunities to get after the quarterback at UCLA because of how valuable he was in coverage. As such, he doesn’t really have an array of moves like some of the other top outside linebackers in this year’s class. But I think the seeds are there for a good rusher because he’s so fast, balanced, violent, and lengthy. He’s got a nice speed rush on the edge. He’ll be tough to handle once he learns a set of power counters and inside moves. But this is an area of his game that is going to require some patience and development and I wouldn’t expect him to put up huge sack numbers early on in his career.
What he entails for the Redskins
Well as I wrote earlier, Ayers has a ballhawking, physical playing style that would allow him to fit right in Jim Haslett’s defense. He’s versatile enough that he’d give Haslett flexibility with his depth chart and allow us to keep a specialist that might not have found a home on the roster otherwise (H.B. Blades for instance). Ayers is also fast and instinctive enough to come in and start early in his career at outside linebacker in our defense and the hope is that Ayers would eventually form a really nice complement to Orakpo. Orakpo’s current skillset pigeon-holes him a bit in the “stand-up defensive end” role at right outside linebacker. Ayers has the potential to bring an integrity in coverage and as a run defender on the edge that we badly need. On paper at least. This is particularly useful for us because coverage and run defense aren’t really Orakpo’s strong suits (although he’s making strides), and typically only one of our safeties at a time draws box duty. Ayers’ natural instincts and hands for pass coverage would be a nice bonus at the outside linebacker position.
Or if we wanted to take a different path with Ayers, he could become a blitzing inside linebacker. He’d get to tee off on blockers and shoot gaps and some of the inadequacies he’d have as a pass rusher would be muted because we’d be scheming ways to get him favorable matchups when he blitzed. He’s certainly big enough to hold his own against charging interior linemen. He has a nice backpedal and reads the field well enough to acquit himself in zone coverages. He can also shadow a back or a tight end in man coverage about as well as any college inside linebacker does. And he’s got a fair amount of experience playing in the middle of the stack already. Playing inside linebacker is definitely on the table with Ayers.
Redskins fans might have mixed feelings about the NFL player comparisons I would draw with Ayers. He’s got a little bit of Lavar Arrington in him. He’s got a lot of Rey Maualuga in him. Maybe also a little Clint Sintim. And the player I think he’ll eventually resemble the most is Adalius Thomas. Thomas was a huge player who could shift fluidly between each of the linebacker spots in the 3-4 fronts of both Baltimore and New England. He could also line up as a down lineman when necessary. Ayers has an interesting mix of skills and probably has the most upside left in his development of any of the top outside linebackers in the class. However, Ayers wouldn’t be my first choice for an outside linebacker, and I don’t think he’s a great value at tenth overall. There are still too many areas where he lacks polish to make that an acceptable risk to take on. His tackling and playing awareness are mediocre at this stage, and he’s just not good enough a pass rusher yet to give him value at such a premium pick. Not to mention I just don’t think he’s as good as Robert Quinn, Von Miller, and Aldon Smith are.
But in the second round at 41? That’d be a great range for Ayers and he would be a nice bargain that late in the draft. As I said earlier, he deserves to go in the first 50 picks. I mocked Ayers to Kansas City at 21st overall last month so I do think it’s unlikely that he’ll fall to us in the second. But with how raw he is, plus with his unexpectedly slow 40 yard dash time at the combine, he might drop out of consideration for the late first round teams. It also hurts Ayers that this is such a strong class of linebackers and defensive linemen at the top. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Daredevil could be languishing on the board in the second round when it becomes our turn to pick. I have a hard time thinking of players that would be more valuable to us than Ayers at that choice.