With the draft less than a month away most teams are settling their draft boards. One player whose stock remains very much in flux is Tennessee defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Ayers.
There appear to be two camps when it comes to Ayers. Some teams view him as a top ten prospect. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, whose opinion I respect, recently ranked Ayers as the 5th best player in the entire 2009 draft. Other teams, however, view Ayers as a second round prospect -- and a marginal one at that.
I contacted four teams about Ayers -- two AFC teams and two NFC teams. Two of the clubs operate primarily out of the 4-3, two primarily out of the 3-4 defense. The reviews were stunningly mixed. One 3-4 team loves him. The other ranks him as the 8th best pass rushing OLB prospect of the draft. Similar results came from the 4-3 teams. Each viewed him strictly as a 4-3 defensive end in their scheme.
I respect the opinions of my contacts in the league, but ultimately, I trust my own eyes more than anyone else's. Therefore, I went back to the film. I own game-film of 6 Tennessee games (UCLA, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Wyoming, Kentucky), as well as the Senior Bowl. After two days of reviewing these tapes, I feel comfortable with my current grade of a late first round to early second round grade.
Ayers, 6-3 (3/8), 272 pounds, primarily lined up as the right defensive end out of the 4-3 alignment in the 6 UT games viewed. This is the position he lined up throughout the week of practice at the Senior Bowl, as well. I have detailed notes from those practices, as well as the Senior Bowl, itself, in which Ayers earned Defensive MVP honors with 3 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. I thought that Ayers was arguably the most impressive player early in the week of practice in Mobile and wrote as much in my Monday and Tuesday reviews of the South practices.
Monday: The surprise was vs. Oher was Ayers, whose quickness off the snap, strength to anchor and dizzying array of counter moves enabled him to beat Oher at times and consistently proved too much for lesser pass blockers. If he can build upon his initial showing with a strong week of practice, Ayers could be the latest example of players catapulting up draft boards with a strong performance in Mobile.
Tuesday: Perhaps due to the colossal battles waged between Oher and Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers on Monday, the two were rarely matched up against each other for this second practice. After an eye-opening initial practice, Ayers struggled with lesser blockers early Tuesday. He picked up his play as the one on ones heated up, however, and finished practice playing with the fervor he’d shown a day earlier. His final snaps of the scrimmage Tuesday, in fact, were spent bull-rushing Tulane tackle Troy Kropog onto his back during one play and using a beautiful swim move to cleanly get past the Green Wave blocker and into the backfield on the next.
The concern I and others have with Ayers is twofold. For one, he didn't establish himself as even a starting caliber player until his senior season despite signing with the Vols as one of the most highly touted preps in the country. Until this season, he was viewed by many as a bit of a bust. Secondly, even though he was as good as any defensive lineman in the SEC this season (and that is saying something) and absolutely deserved the 1st team conference honors he received this year (49 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss), he finished with only 3 sacks.
Based on the film, Ayers consistently plays to his level of competition. His most dominant game (statistically-speaking) was against Georgia, which unfortunately, I don't have film of. Against Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, Ayers showed good burst, impressive strength to shed, good agility and vision when redirecting and hustle. These were the same attributes I saw against Oher in the Senior Bowl practices.
Against lesser talent in the Wyoming and UCLA losses, however, Ayers disappeared too long for my taste.
Ayers' fluidity improved so dramatically from his Combine performance and Pro Day, that I can understand why some are very excited about him. Those close to the Tennessee program rave about his emergence as a senior leader and there is no denying his athleticism. While he predominately lined up at right defensive end, he also moved inside to defensive tackle, at times, to the left defensive end and was a standup pass rusher from either side, as well. He is not truly explosive off the snap, but can bend under the tackle and has very good lateral quickness to "get skinny" and beat the offensive tackle back inside after a jab-step to the outside to tackle runners for loss.
He has the versatility that every team is looking for and the opinion that he could be an ascending talent will likely push him into the first round -- but there is significant boom or bust potential here.
For these reasons, Ayers was characterized to me by a high ranking official of one of the four teams as "the most polarizing defender who's gonna go in the top 50. Some love him. Some are only luke-warm on him. He's moving up though..."