Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dumpster diving Belichick proving that one man's trash is another man's treasure

Akeem Ayers was projected to be a first round draft pick.

At 6' 3" and 255 pounds, Ayers hit on everything that you could want out of a strong-side linebacker: rangy with excellent ball skills, possessing an arsenal of pass rush moves and a finishing burst that caused many experts to label him a can't miss, immediate impact player coming out of UCLA.
Akeem Ayers celebrates a sack of Denver's Peyton Manning

But then his 40 yard dash time at the 2011 scouting combine disappointed. Running a 4.83, every team in the NFL became wary of timed speed, not quite willing to spend 1st day draft capital on a guy that had prototypical linebacker size, but with three-tech speed.  Instead, Ayers watched fellow linebackers Von Miller and Aldon Smith taken with Top-10 selections, while he slipped into the second day.

Shocked to see him still on the board, the Tennessee Titans snagged Ayers with the seventh pick of the second round and immediately inserted him as the strong side linebacker in their 4-3 defensive scheme, where he did indeed provide instant impact, recording 76 tackles and two sacks in his rookie campaign...

,,,following that up with a stellar sophomore season in which he eclipsed the one hundred tackle plateau, logged six sacks and chipped in with eight passes defended.  Clearly Ayers was a steal in the second round and was well on his way to stardom in defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's scheme.

Then 2013 happened.

Injuries to both knees - both with damaged patella tendons, ironically a similar injury to what has Patriots' captain Jerod Mayo on the shelf - sapped much of Ayers' lateral agility and aggressiveness and subsequently tapped into his snap count, his total tackles dropping to half of the previous year's level and he recorded only one sack.

The knee injuries were bad enough to require surgery on both after the season, impacting his full availability for OTA's and the Titans' 2014 minicamp - important in that Gray was now gone, fired with head coach Mike Munchak, and replaced by Ray Horton.

A combination of Ayers' recovery from clean-up on both knees and missing out on acclimating to Horton's 3-4 defensive philosophy rendered him inactive for five of the Titans' first seven games, even though he was physically able to perform when the season started, something that both Ayers and Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick alluded to as perhaps being the reason for a falling out with the Titans' new coaching staff - though in a typically back-handed way.

"I was part of some coaching changes." Ayers told the Boston media upon his arrival in Foxborough when inquired about his perceived falling from graces in Tennessee. "Things like that can happen. It's in the past and I'm happy to be here."

If you ask Titans' coach Ken Whisenhunt, he had nothing positive to say about Ayers in the weeks leading up to the trade with New England, and the price the Patriots had to pay in order to obtain Ayers - a sixth-round draft pick - made Whisenhunt's point.

I'm expecting consistency" said the well-traveled Whisenhunt, who also sent a seventh-round pick to New England to dump Ayers. "The only way that he is going to get back on the field is if he does that. It's really up to him."

It's difficult to say whether Ayers would be in Foxborough right now were it not for the season-ending injury to weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a significant hip injury to defensive end Chandler Jones, but one thing is for certain: The Akeem Ayers who is now a Patriot looks like the Akeem Ayers who was a force in 2012.

Although Ayers played strong side linebacker in Tennessee through his first three years, his versatility - Surprise! - has instantly made him a vital cog in the Patriots' defense, playing primarily on passing downs at first but graduating to playing the majority of snaps both as a stand-up weakside defender and also with his hand in the dirt in the stead of Jones at defensive end.

The results are encouraging, with three sacks in six games played with an edge-setting mentality that has helped the Patriots' run defense improve dramatically, to the point that there are many openly questioning if the run defense isn't actually better with Ayers on the weakside - and while the fourth-year UCLA product has indeed been a God-send, the true test of his worth should begin on Sunday night when the Patriots take on the Chargers in San Diego.

Jones is expected to make his return from the hip injury, and combined with the status of middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower being a game-time decision due to a shoulder injury may thrust Ayers into an even more significant role, as he has the versatility to line up on the inside, though he gives up about 30 pounds to the massive Hightower.

At his best, Ayers takes tremendous pursuit angles and you will often see him skirting the line of scrimmage and making a play on the ball carrier.  In theses situations he is perfect against teams that employ read option elements and zone blocking schemes, as the weakside linebacker's responsibility is to read the play from the backside, choose a target (either the quarterback or the running back) and to take that target down for little or no gain...

...while against a team like the Chargers who throw a lot and have an ambulatory (but nowhere near as mobile a signal caller as someone like Aaron Rodgers) quarterback like Phillip Rivers with a rocket launcher for an arm, Ayers' aforementioned versatility provides many different options for Patriots' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

Despite Rivers' accurate and lethal deep ball - no one throws a prettier deep spiral - the Chargers have had to be content with the short to intermediate passing game, with just as many crossing routes underneath as screens into the flat, which puts an emphasis on linebacker coverage on backs and tight ends, and if Jones' return allows Ayers to play a true weakside base position, we will find out all we need to know about what the Patriots truly have in him.

Belichick has made a career of claiming players that other teams have given up on and plugging them in to his system with success, which means that he is the ultimate NFL version of a dumpster diver, dining on scraps that the other coaches found less palatable - so if Belichick has once again turned one man's trash into his treasure, he will have inserted a former second round draft pick into a defense that is already loaded with first and second day talent...

...boasting five first rounders and four second rounders among their starting eleven, with only big-time playmakers Rob Ninkovich (5th round) and Brandon Browner (undrafted) drafted outside of that elite zone, both of them successful Belichick reclamation projects in their own right.

That's a pretty hefty number of high-round draft picks on one defense and with those personnel split pretty evenly between original Belichick picks (Jones, Vince Wilfork, Hightower, Jamie Collins, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung) and his reclamation projects (Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Browner, Revis and Ayers - though Revis is hardly a project) proves his worth as a talent evaluator both on the collegiate and pro level.

There are more projects on the depth chart, Sealver Siliga and Jonathan Casillas come to mind as players who have proven reliable in spot duty, along with a myriad of raw talent littered across the chart and on the practice squad - enough to field a talented squad for seasons to come...

...but also one that is ready to contend for a title now, and the way that players like Ayers are contributing, a title just may be theirs in February.

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