In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, Sean Lee tallied the highest overall percentage (82.4). Starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking (or Brookings, according to multiple media outlets) checked in with just a 81.3 percent and 76.7 percent, respectively.
In my opinion, we saw enough improvement from Lee over the course of the season for him to start in 2011. He should undoubtedly take the place of Brooking, who, although still a great leader, is simply too slow at this point in his career to make a major impact. James probably has a year or two left in him, but his play hasn’t been sensational of late either.
With so many holes to fill, however, inside linebacker will likely take a back seat on draft day. . .unless, of course, that inside linebacker has enough versatility to justify an early selection. Versatility is the reason I love Illinois’ Martez Wilson. He’s a beast who can play both inside and outside linebacker in Dallas.
To me, Wilson and today’s feature, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, are extremely similar. Here is why I believe Ayers could be valuable to Dallas. . .
There’s a bit of confusion about which position Akeem Ayers will play in the NFL. Unlike other prospects, however, this confusion doesn’t stem from Ayers’ inability to fit a specific prototype. Rather, Ayers has the potential to play three positions in the NFL–4-3 strong side linebacker and both inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4–at a very high level.
At UCLA, Ayers lined up all over the place. In the same defensive series, you might see him five yards off of the ball in the middle of the field, then outside the tackle in a stand-up position, then with his hand in the dirt as a traditional defensive end. Readers know I covet versatility. Ayers’ upside is enormous because he has multiple positions at which he can succeed at the next level.
At 6’3”, 255 pounds, Ayers is large enough to play outside linebacker for Dallas, but quick enough to kick inside and pursue ball-carriers. There were some concerns about his 40-yard dash time at the Combine (4.88), but he plays much, much faster in games. Ayers also recently ran a 4.69 at his Pro Day to ease some concerns about his speed.
It is Ayers’ quickness, however, that makes me think his future in the NFL is as a 3-4 rush linebacker. Whenever Ayers lined up at defensive end or blitzed at UCLA, he was a monster. His first step was outstanding and he’s quite agile in space. When he has that sort of “attacking” mindset, he’s unstoppable.
I have posted highlights from what I consider Ayers’ two best games below.
You can see that, despite a lack of extensive experience rushing the passer, Ayers is unblockable when he’s in attack mode. When Ayers lines up as an inside linebacker or isn’t blitzing, however, that isn’t the case.
Although tremendous with his hand placement and positioning, Ayers doesn’t shed blocks well. He doesn’t attack blockers in the same way he does when blitzing. Ayers does do a very nice job of stringing out run plays, forcing the ball-carrier to the sideline. Thus, he allows his teammates to make a lot of tackles instead of selfishly losing position.
Ayers is also excellent in pursuit. When left unblocked, he frequently flies across the field to make plays he “shouldn’t” make.
Still, Ayers needs to maintain his aggressive mindset at all times. If he can transition that aggression to his play at inside linebacker, his NFL versatility and upside will be incredible.
Here are Ayers’ two worst games. . .
Overall, I see Ayers as a rush linebacker in the NFL. His experience at inside linebacker will certainly come in handy, but his upside as an outside backer is too great for a team to not give him a shot. Once he develops a more diverse pass-rush arsenal, Ayers could be great.
Since releasing my initial 2011 Big Board, I have moved Ayers up to No. 23 overall–one spot behind Martez Wilson.
Ayers is probably going to be a first round selection. He won’t get chosen by Dallas there, obviously, and he’s unlikely to fall to the Cowboys’ 40th overall selection. Thus, Ayers probably won’t be wearing a star on his helmet any time soon.
If Ayers does fall, however, the Cowboys need to take a long look at him. I wouldn’t recommend taking an inside or outside linebacker in the first two rounds, but a player who is a legitimate threat to thrive at both positions is a possibility. I still prefer Martez Wilson by a hair, but I’m in the minority there.
The Cowboys won’t trade up from their No. 40 selection for a linebacker, but the potential value of a player like Ayers might be too great to pass up if he does happen to fall to their current pick.
Other Potential Dallas Cowboys Draft Picks in 2011