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Robert Ayers: From Tennessee to the NFL


Robert Ayers is the most talked-about Volunteer heading to the NFL Draft this year, and for good reason:  the one-time poster child for off-field incidents is the proud owner of the most incredible one-year rise in draft stock in the entire NCAA.  In an earlier article, I took a look at Ayers's collegiate career, focusing mostly on his growth and maturity as a whole person rather than his football stats.  Here, I'll take a look at his surge in draft popularity and the various draft possibilities ahead of him.

But to start, here's a replay of Joel's fabulous video on Ayers.  (Most of the highlights are from the 2008 season.)





Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine

The upswing in performance in the 2008 campaign was sufficient to bump Ayers from a draft "maybe" to a likely first-day pick.  Talk seemed to center on a mid-second round pick when the season ended, with the biggest knock that he had such little starting experience relative to other defensive ends in the draft.  His ability to sustain his performance over multiple seasons is a complete unknown, and NFL scouts are keyed in on finding uncertainties just like that.  Ayers needed some way to prove himself outside the 2008 season; together, the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine proved to be exactly that opportunity.

The Senior Bowl proved that Ayers could succeed outside of UT:

Coming in, critics were concerned about him not being a full-time starter as a Vol for very long. Then he straight whooped Michael Oher last Monday in practice and was basically unblockable in last night’s game, recording 1.5 sacks — the half sack resulting in a defensive TD. He’s a second-round lock who could move up with a strong combine showing. Ayers was the Defensive Player of the Game.

Since the NFL Network showed the Senior Bowl, finding highlights is difficult (they squash video reproductions through copyright laws), but you can see Ayers blowing by the tackle to force a sack here (at about 1:20).

Ayers continued to impress at the NFL Combine (quick video here).  Answering questions about his past and present gave the NFL teams a chance to feel better about his maturity; with Goodell's crackdown on off-field incidents, teams are especially wary about problem cases, and Ayers walked out with a clean slate.  His combine numbers were, for the most part, very good, and the only real flaw was making only 18 reps of the 225-pound bench press.  (Though, for a guy with arms as long as Ayers, that's not as bad as it sounds.) The hard work, positive attitude, and solid performance gave NFL teams yet one more reason to believe that the Ayers of 2008 was indeed a different player than the cut-up who came into Tennessee in 2004.

So how much did the offseason circuit help Ayers?

Current Draft Prospect for Ayers

As with most players, opinions still vary widely on Ayers.  Mike Mayock places Ayers as the top DE prospect in the entire draft, and the #5 overall prospect.

SI placed Ayers at #27 overall, with the notable quote:

Ayers played like the best defensive end in the nation last season and his combine workout may have moved him into the first round.

CBSSports places Ayers at #41 (6 in position).  Boooooo!

Yahoo! places Ayers as the #2 4-3 defensive end.

Bleacher Report places Ayers at #28 overall.

Who Is Interested in Ayers?

If anybody had asked this question one year ago, the answer would have been: nobody.  Today, it seems that half the NFL is seriously considering this guy for the first round.  Grabbing a solid, reliable defensive end is never a bad idea.  Ayers is ideally suited to play defensive end in a 4-3 defense as he is currently a little undersized for end in a 3-4 alignment.  Though some teams have speculated whether he could add 10-15 pounds to his frame, those who run a 3-4 have been looking at him as a possible outside linebacker more so than an end.  With his speed, agility, technique, and long arms, Ayers is a pass rusher first, and a run defender second; he's not the guy you want mucking it up in the trenches for whole games, but there's no reason to believe that he can't be effective if given a little space.  Let's take a look at how a few SBN NFL sites have viewed Ayers (click on the logos to read a post from their site):


The 49ers draft at #10 and have a need for defensive end.  This is the highest I can see Ayers getting drafted because of the lingering one-year-wonder question.  But if he falls into the second round, they would take a long look at him.


The Bills have expressed great interest in Ayers and have invited him over for private interviews.  At #11 in the draft, picking Ayers would be akin to the Patriots picking Mayo at #10 last year.  That seemed to work out pretty well...



The Broncos need D-line help badly, and they now have both the #12 and #18 picks in the draft.  Either one could be used to help their anemic pass rush.  The hitch is that they're likely to switch to a 3-4 in the next year or two, so I'm not holding my breath that Ayers would end up here.


Under Kubiak, the Texans have drafted D-line very heavily.  Battle Red Blog loves Ayers's versatility, bt the Texans are not likely to draft him at 15.  I don't see Ayers lasting to their second pick at 46, but it's a team that would love to get him.


The Bears likely took themselves out of Ayers consideration by trading the farm for Cutler, but I had looked into the possibility so I kept them in the conversation anyhow.  They don't have a pressing need for another DE, but he was exactly the kind of guy they'd like to have in the wings to step up as other players age out.  (For a great image of the futility of mock drafts, check out this article written the same day the Bears traded for Cutler.)


To me, the Bucs are a total wild card in this year's draft.  I don't know anything about the new coaching staff largely because I haven't had the time to catch up on the changes.  At least one person sees Ayers as a real draft possibility for them, as the link in the image shows.  But I would defer questions to the ever-awesome Craig T, who is one of the Buc Em editors and swings by here for his regular Vols fix.


As usual, the Lions need about 47 picks in the first round.  Yet they have two first-round picks and the first second-round pick, which gives the Lions surprising flexibility to hose up help themselves in the draft.  All kidding aside, the Lions have the chance to be in a lot of pick trade discussions and have the ability to take whomever is best on the board at any time.  Ayers could easily find himself  in Detroit.


The Eagles are noted as a possible team for Ayers by a few draftniks.  This is certainly not an area of great need at the moment and I don't think it's likely, but Philly has always loved having a good pass rush, and it's not like they haven't had success with Vols before.  Break Time!


The Falcons don't seem like a team that will draft a DE in the first round this year, but it's not out of the question:  Anderson has been unproductive and Abraham is getting old.  Ayers would not be a wildly popular pick but would make sense in the longer term and has been speculated by dratniks (for all the times that teams use 1st-round picks for the long term - like that ever work out).


The Phinsider has been quiet on Ayers, as most people feel the Dolphins have far more pressing needs at WR and CB.  They seem pretty happy with the D-line, which is more of a 3-4 unit, so Ayers would likely fall here only if he's going to be converted to an OLB for a 3-4 defense.  That's not a bad idea, but I can't rate it as the likeliest pick in the world in context of the search for skill position players.


With their traditionally stout defensive line, there isn't a glaring need for Ayers here.  I list Baltimore for two reasons:  one is that #26 is about the range that Ayers should be selected, and the other is that they could use him to trade for value with other teams (either by trading Ayers or by trading an aging end and replacing him with Ayers).  It's a defense that may break down any year now, so a forward-thinking draft could easily see Ayers end up in Maryland.


The Tennessee Titans fans seem to be showing a fair amount of interest in Ayers (click the link to see a list of Ayers stories at MCM), though it's hard to tell how much of that is from dual fandom.  MCM does point out the increasing trend of mock drafts picking Ayers for Tennessee, including the explanation by Don Banks from his mock draft:

30: DE Robert Ayers, Tennessee

With the Titans having swapped Albert Haynesworth for Jovan Haye at the defensive tackle position in free agency, I'm sticking with Tennessee taking the ex-Volunteer Ayers and beefing up its rotation at defensive end. Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson and LSU's are the other two defensive ends who could sneak into the bottom of the first round.

That is perfectly reasonable.  If Ayers is around at this point in the draft - which is quite likely - then I would almost anticipate this happening.


The real money line from ROTB comes in the very first sentence of the post linked in the image:

The draft is less than a month away so everyone can start the countdown and the Arizona Cardinals will have an interesting draft considering that they've never drafted this late before.

Good point, that.  Of course, the Birds might not have drafted that high, but their head coach (Wisenhunt) is used to it from his Steeler days.  The three positions that the Cardinals seem most interested in drafting are RB, TE, and DE, so Ayers might actually be on the radar for them.  I'm inclined to think they're looking for a replacement for Edgerrin James, but it's not like I know their thoughts any better than anybody else.

Most of the teams I didn't discuss either draft earlier in the first round than I believe Ayers could possibly go (e.g. Rams, Chiefs, Seahawks), or they run 3-4 defenses that don't suit him well (e.g. Vikings, Chargers, Patriots).  If he falls to the second round, many of these teams come into play as potential suitors for his skills.  So while it's certainly possible that a team I didn't mention could pick him up, this covers everybody who I think could realistically go for him in the first round.  Not that anybody ever screws up their first round pick, right?  (PSA: turn your speakers down a notch with that link.  You'll understand.)

So where does he go, and when?

If I knew that, I'd be making a more money right now.  Projections show him anywhere from a top-5 overall talent (Mayock) to a late second-rounder.  Mayock tends to take into account how well a player's talent would seem to fit in the NFL, so that's a good sign, but so much is going to depend on how badly teams think they need a DE.

But since everybody else is tossing guesses around, I'll do the same.  I'll make one stipulation, though; I'm going to guess under the assumption that he'll go in the first round (because I have no clue what teams will do after that).  Here are my top three guesses, in order of guessiness:

  1. Tennessee Titans (#30)  The talk revolving around Ayers to the Titans keeps heating up.  Again, that doesn't mean a lot, but with the recent reshuffling of the traditionally stout line, this would be an ideal time for Fisher to get younger and retool.  He'll have a year or two of grace to account for the loss of Haynesworth, by which time Ayers should be at full speed.
  2. Buffalo Bills (#11)  It sounds like a real reach to pick up Ayers at #11, but I think he'd be a pretty good fit for them.  I also believe that getting a good player for your team is never an overreach unless it's blindingly obvious that they'll be their later in the draft.  And that's not the case for Ayers.
  3. Atlanta Falcons (#24)  Anderson's a real bust and Abraham is aging.  I would expect them to try to fix that sooner rather than later, as a flagging pass rush can be devastating - especially to a team that plays the Saints twice a year.

It's not a particularly stout year for defensive ends, though it's certianly not the thinnest it's ever been.  Ayers has a great chance to move up the boards and cash in quickly.  Not bad for a guy who very nearly altercated himself straight out of football for good.