This year, the NFL draft appears to have only one spot of drama for Vols fans. With the very disappointing year in 2008, there are very few outbound players from Big Orange Country who are listed as draft possibilities at all - much less first-rounders. Robert Ayers is the only person who appears to have any shot of a first round (or second round, even) selection. Yet even his odds at pulling a Jerod Mayo may be in jeopardy.
I wrote a couple of articles about the big fella earlier - first looking at his career at UT, then looking at the draft prospects that seemed to be before him. This weekend, however, I was perusing the NFL sites across SBNation to start getting a feel of the NFL draft. In particular, I was curious how the blogs who obsess about the "consumer end" of the draft were gauging Ayers's stock. There were two things that directly stuck out at me: one is that they're not exactly sure how to rate Ayers, and the other is that his biggest enemy may be the draft order itself. I'll address the first issue briefly, but I want to spend a bit of time on the second.
First, the biggest problem with Ayers from a player perspective is that he's a "one-year wonder". As noted in the career post linked above, Ayers really floundered throughout the early part of his career because his maturity issues badly hampered his performance and development. Once he really started getting his head on straight, his performance began to improve. The culmination of his turnaround was 2008, where he was one of the few players to really improve and excel in an otherwise dismal year. Unfortunately, NFL teams are very skittish of one-year wonders. Overcoming this is helped somewhat by his huge Senior Bowl performance, his stellar personal interviews, and his solid workouts. But his history is what it is, and he may still be paying the price for early immaturity.
Second, the biggest problem Ayers will face from a logistical perspective is the order of the draft.
If you look at the SBNation NFL sites, there is a general trend in the mock drafts to have Ayers go to Buffalo at #11, at Tennessee at #30, or in the second round (where all bets are off). A few mocks have him in places like Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore, Texas, Washington, and others, but the clear favorites are Buffalo and Tennessee.
The Buffalo Dilemma
Buffalo really appears to be the team that would benefit most from drafting Ayers, according to the general consensus. They're also the team with the fanbase that's taking the hardest look at him. Just look at who's posting about him and talking about him on his personal player page on SBNation. If you include this very post, I am tied for the second most number of stories including Ayers. Joel is first, but Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings has posted as much as I have - and in less time.
Ayers to Buffalo makes a lot of sense on a lot of levels. Buffalo needs a reliable defensive end, and this is indeed one of their larger needs in the draft. They need a guy who will work hard and be reliable, as they have no margin for error when chasing their divisional rival Patriots. Whoever they pick as a DE in this draft (and they will surely get one) must be coachable, disciplined, and smart - and Ayers has all three. The problem gets back to that one-year metric: top 10-15 draft picks are used almost exclusively for "bang" picks - guys you think have a chance to grow into perennial all-stars. There's a lot of financial incentive to go flashy this high in the draft as well; not only are these teams going to pay a lot of money to a rookie, the fans will react accordingly, and a small-market team can see a dip in revenue if the pick is not well-received.
Also, there are quite simply a lot of outstanding college players left when the Bills pick at #11. Some USC linebackers will be available, as well as defensive tackles, offensive linemen, and some great skill players. It's very easy to look at the longer, flashier collegiate histories of many available players and be tempted to pick away from your greater needs. Fans love it, and the team has the hope of shooting for the stars.
As much as I like this pick for Buffalo and for Ayers, I just have a hard time believing Buffalo would be willing to "reach" at #11.
If Buffalo manages to trade down in the draft, I would expect the Ayers speculation to soar. It just seems to me that the team with the most to gain by drafting Ayers is in a position where they might be afraid to pull the trigger on him.
After Buffalo (Meaning Before Buffalo)
For what mock drafts are worth, they do give you a sense of the needs of the teams - especially when you read mock drafts for the specific team a blogger/fan/writer/whatever follows. The links are rather voluminous, but you can find mock drafts that have Robert Ayers going to nearly every single team in the first 10 picks of the draft, including some compelling logic for each choice. It's not hard to understand, really; teams with top 10 picks usually need critical help in many positions, and a solid defensive line is extremely important to have.
Unfortunately for Ayers, these picks are all in the second round. The highest I've ever seen Ayers go in a mock draft was to the 49ers at #10, but I didn't think the guy was trying to predict the team's actual picks so much as what he'd like to do. (And I've since lost the link, unfortunately.) But once you get to the second round, the insane hype of the NFL draft dies down considerably and teams begin to focus on value more than needs and this mystical concept of an "appriopriate" drafting position.
In short, once you get past Buffalo, you've passed most of the teams who would have the most interest in Ayers.
After Buffalo (As In: Really, After Buffalo)
SBNation blogtalk seems to focus on the Titans quite a bit. That would be the homestate pick (if you consider the homestate to be the college location, not Ayers's actual hometown). It would also add needed contribution to a defensive line that is losing a lot. Even though Haynesworth's departure is the biggest gap to fill, there are a lot of reasons to place Ayers in Nashville.
Even at #30, though, it seems that the Titans may be skittish about this move. Everything about their offseason is ultimately going to focus on three tasks: finding another starting wide receiver, finding a long-term quarterback solution, and replacing Haynesworth. Drafting Ayers would do none of the three. The problem for the Titans, though, is that there may not be a quarterback or a defensive tackle on the board that they'd want at #30. That means that the biggest temptation is to draft a wide receiver. I'm not familiar with the options that should be available at that point, but you have to assume that guys like Maclin and Crabtree will be long gone, which may make the draft's (arguably) best DE a real option. And of those who do seek a DE first, they'll go with Orakpo because of his longer track record of success.
Yessir, the Lions need help at every position. Again. With the first pick, they probably won't go with a wide receiver this time (Fire Millen!), but they certainly won't go with Ayers. They also have #20 and the first pick in the second round, so you can't rule out Ayers as a possibility here. The thing that people have to remember about the Lions is that picking #1, #20, and #33 is very expensive for three draft prospects. I'm not intimately familiar with Detroit's salary cap, but their ties to Ford Motor Company and Detroit's generally stinktastic economy probably has them thinking value rather than flash. They'll use the #1 pick because nobody will trade for it, but they'll likely do everything they can to trade down from there.
Because of Detroit, I think that attempting to guess every draft position after #20 is futile.
I don't see any team moving upward to grab Ayers, but I could see a lot of teams (who might otherwise draft Ayers) move up to #20 to grab somebody else away from a divisional or conference foe. This includes the Titans, who might see the #20 spot as an opportunity to grab a DT.
And if the #20 spot isn't enticing enough for a team, there is also Denver with the #12 and #18 picks. If McDaniels follows the Patriots draft model, he'll sell off either pick for a 2010 first-round pick and a 2009 3rd-rounder (or something similar). That would also go to a team that might consider Ayers but would trade up for somebody else.
If the Bills were drafting below about #15, or if the midround picks were a little more stable, Ayers would have a fantastic shot at going in the first round. As it is, there are a lot of reasons to believe he won't be taken in the first round, which would be an unfortunate rarity for Tennessee players.