In this pre-draft season 40 times, vertical leaps, short shuttles and broad jumps can all take on too much significance in the eyes of those fans consumed by the NFL draft. UCLA ‘s Akeem Ayers likely would not be overly impressive in terms of test numbers, but NFL scouts will tell you he’s near the top of many draft boards at outside linebacker because of what he’s put on tape the past three years.
From the time he was a starter as a sophomore Ayers has shown a knack for turning in big plays, but his numbers were not all about big sack totals like some other outside linebackers in the draft class. His big play statistics lie in several different categories and serve as evidence of an all-around game that makes Ayers attractive to any team looking for a linebacker that’s always around the ball.
Though Ayers had 14 sacks, what was more impressive were his six interceptions including a pair that he took back for touchdowns as well as 10 pass breakups. Known as a solid hitter Ayers also had seven forced fumbles with a fumble return for a touchdown for good measure.
He may not be an elite pass rusher, but he’s proven capable, while also showing he can perform all the other job requirements of an outside linebacker.
“A guy that is kind of like a (Terrell) Suggs type player is Akeem Ayers,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. “Even though he wasn’t as productive as Suggs was at Arizona State he was a different kind of player. He can play in reverse. He can play the run well and also give you enough of a pass rush. The thing that’s the same with those two is they’re both Pac-10 guys and both are suspect because of their speed. But both were productive and very good football players. Suggs still went in the top 10 overall. I think Ayers is still a first rounder.”
Ayers helped his case following his disappointing 4.81 40 time at the NFL combine posting a 4.7 at UCLA’s pro day. What ultimately enhances his stock the most is his well-rounded game which makes him a fit no matter the defensive system.
“I feel like I can adapt to any defense as far as 4-3 or 3-4 because my versatility having played defensive end in college and pass rushing linebacker,” he said. “So I feel like adapting to any defense won’t be a problem. Probably 80 percent of the time I was just a base 4-3 (strong side) linebacker. So we ran a lot of quarter defense, zone defense so that was my main strength starting off coming out of high school. At UCLA I didn’t start getting into pass rush situations until my sophomore year which carried on into my junior season.”
Ayers coverage ability was so consistent that his defensive coaches would often deploy him in coverage instead of having him rush the passer as he was routinely assigned running backs and tight ends in man coverage. He believes he can bring his pass rush up to that level as well in time.
“As far as my pass rush ability I know I’m nowhere near reaching my peak and I’ve done a pretty good job rushing the passer over these past two seasons,” he said. “I’m only going to get better at rushing the passer so the sky is the limit as far as rushing the passer.”
Some however, are of the opinion that Ayers isn’t too bad right now when it comes to getting heat on the passer.
“I’ve got him as my number two outside linebacker prospect,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “He’s played both with his hand in the dirt and up. He played linebacker at UCLA. I think he has first round ability because of his ability to get to the quarterback. Most of the 3-4 teams are interested in him, but I think he can play in a 4-3 scheme. If you’re scheme diverse that’s a good thing.”
Add in his captaincy and Ayers, who was once known as a prankster, looks like a solid overall package for NFL clubs.
“It just shows how your teammates look up to you and the type of player you are,” he said. “We had a pretty young team. It just showed me how they looked up to me and it made me want to work harder and be a better player for my teammates. I know if I play well and do the right things I could make the people around me better. So I took a lot of pride in being a captain as a junior.”
Though the wins didn’t come with quite the frequency Ayers had hoped for in his time at UCLA, it never changed his effort each time out.
“I wanted to be one of the top defenders in the PAC-10 just make as many plays as I could to help the team win. We fell short there, but as far as personal goals I think I did pretty well at that.”
Throughout the month of April, we are running 2011 NFL Draft prospect stories each week. In addition, Bills fans can vote in the Bills and M&T Bank Draft Day Challenge who they think will be the Bills first pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and have the chance to win a Bills Game Day Experience to remember. Five grand prize winners will get sideline passes, M&T Bank Club tickets that include food and beverage, a Bills Alumni meet and greet and a Bills helmet. Click here to vote.