Is Ayers the answer he appears to be for Bucs?

by Gary Shelton on March 17, 2016 · 1 comment

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Thursday, 6 a.m.

On the video, he looks fast enough. He looks strong enough. He looks talented enough.

On the video, he looks like the answer.

But is he?

Punch up the highlights, and Robert Ayers can finish. He can blow by an offensive tackle, and he can race his teammates into the backfield, and he can ruin the afternoon of a quarterback. Watch him, and maybe he can make you forget about Eric Curry and Keith McCants and Regan Upshaw and all the other pretenders who have played on the edge for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Ah, but highlights are tricky little things, aren't they? They can make average players look amazing, and they can make bad ones look decent.

So are you convinced?

Or is there more for Ayers to prove?

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A reason to believe? Ayers had nine sacks a year ago in only 12 games, and he had seven sacks in his last five. He played like a player who has finally figured it out. He's versatile, able to rush from the inside in certain packages. You can check his driver's license, but it doesn't say anything about being “Michael Johnson” on it.

A reason to doubt? Ayers had only 7 ½ sacks in his first four seasons in the NFL. Even with 19 ½ sacks in the last three seasons, he's averaging only 3.7 sacks per season. The Giants spent $85 million on a defensive end this off-season, and it wasn't on Ayers.

So what do you believe? Is Ayers the next Simeon Rice? Or is he the next Booker Reese? Do you believe in last year? Or in all the years before it? Do you believe the pass rush might finally have returned to the Bucs? Or will opposing quarterbacks continue to have spotless jerseys on Sundays?

Think of it like this: No defensive lineman since Rice has had double-digit sacks. Could Ayers be the next one?

“I can't make predictions like that,” Ayers said on a conference call Wednesday. “I definitely feel confidence in myself that I can do that. I feel like I’m a player that is on the rise and I feel like I’m improving. I feel like I’m getting better, I’m learning the game, I’m understanding things better. I’m constantly trying to improve, constantly trying to learn and I think playing with Gerald McCoy will definitely free me up to be able to do a lot of those things.”

Besides, if you're counting, Ayers thinks he had more than he was given credit for last year.

“In my mind, I had 10 sacks last year,” Ayers said, laughing. “They took a half away and gave me 9.5 (actually 9.0). I’m just joking, but I definitely feel that I’m capable of that. I can’t say what I will do, I just know I believe in myself and I believe in the guys around me and I believe in the staff.”

For Ayers, it's about time. He's always been a bit of a slow starter. He started only two games before his senior season at Tennessee, then played well enough as a senior to be a No. 1 draft pick. Denver tried him at a hybrid linebacker position, and then moved him to the defensive line full-time.

So why has he become a force now that he's 30 instead of younger?

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Ayers said. “I know personally, when I first came into the league, honestly, I wasn’t as mature as I needed to be.  I was in a situation where I was asked to do things that I wasn’t comfortable with scheme-wise and a lot of things. I faced a lot of challenges and mentally I wasn’t able to deal with it. Quite frankly, I wasn’t mature enough. I bounced around, had a lot of different positions, a lot of different roles and four different defensive coordinators in my first five years and like I said, I wasn’t mature enough.

“I didn’t understand the game, I wasn’t learning as fast, but over time I just learned and I keep getting better. When I came to the Giants I came here hoping that Coach [Robert] Nunn was going to give me an opportunity to do what I believe I did best and that’s what I was able to do. I think two years ago I had 5.5 or 6 or whatever. I think my last year in Denver, Coach Del Rio put me in better situations to succeed and I think I had 6.5 half sacks including the playoffs and I wasn’t even a starter. I was behind Von Miller and I had 6.5. Last year I started and had 9.5 in 12 games, so I really do feel like I am an improved player and with opportunity and chance and me learning and me maturing, I think I continue to do good and continue to get better. Like I said, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Not being mature enough to handle the situation, learning, being put in better situations to succeed and me understanding who I am and what I do and building on those things.

Ayers was part of a league shuffle in free agency this spring. Mario Williams went to the Dolphins, and Olivier Vernon went to the Giants, and Ayers went to the Bucs. So which one of them will have the most sacks?

“I mean I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I thought it was going to be me,” Ayers said. “That’s the way I approach the game and that’s the way I feel about myself. I feel like I can compete with anyone. Every year I go into it wanting to win. I go into the season wanting to be the best player. I go into it wanting to be the best Robert Ayers and that’s never going to change. I’m a competitor, I want to win and I want to be a dominant player.

“Nothing against those guys and their track record and what they have done and what they have accomplished, I just fully believe in myself and I fully believe in the ability I’ve been given and I fully believe in this staff. I fully believe in the guys I’ll be playing with and I think the opportunities will be there and it’s just going to be up to me to maximize my opportunities and get better and learn and stay healthy and compete like that. I can be that guy.”

Ayers thinks he fits in well with the scheme that will be employed by new defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

“For me it was all about opportunity, all about scheme fit,” Ayers said. “The money — everybody wants to get paid. I’d be lying if I said the money didn’t matter but for me, I want to be a great player and I understand that being in this league you have to be in the right system. You can take more money and go somewhere where you’re going to be asked to do things that you’re not good at but for me I wanted to be in a situation with a staff that understand what they’re getting and they’re going to utilize me the way that they saw me being successful my last few years and I think they’re going to do that. They’re going to utilize me and allow me to do the things that I do well. Of course the opportunity to play with Gerald McCoy, a guy that I’ve studied a lot and watched a lot and who’s a tremendous player, one of the best players in the league.”

In the end, it pays off by pulling a quarterback to the ground. If Tampa Bay fans think that looks good to them, they ought to envision it through the eyes of the defensive end.

“It feels great, because you know the preparation that goes into it,” Ayers said. “You study the guy all week. You watch him, you try to pick up on his tendencies. You watch the cadence, you watch the snap count, and then, when you do all that studying, you get in the game and a lot of things have to happen, right? So many times you can beat your guy in a half a second, and the ball is out. Or you can beat your guy and you get to the quarterback and he has the ball, but he makes you miss.

“So to put in the work throughout the week and then to go out there and have everything work right for you to make that play, it’s huge."

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cecil DeBald March 17, 2016 at 9:07 am

I’ve been suckered before by Buc’s free agents, and so I might be again, but that’s ok – I think Ayers will be very good, a real DE for a change!

Cecil

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