NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Akeem Ayers played 10 snaps over two games for the Tennessee Titans this season, and he was inactive for five more. But the New England Patriots saw something in the 2011 39th overall draft pick; something that could potentially help a depleted front seven at minimal expense.
Time will tell if that something pays off.
There is reason to temper expectations for a 6’3” 255-pound linebacker that took only sixth-round pick to acquire – along with a seventh-rounder – from Tennessee on Tuesday afternoon. Yet there is also reason to expect Ayers will have a purpose in New England’s defense if he can acclimate to it.
Given the reliance on Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, who combined for over 160 snaps in Week 7 after captain, communicator and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost for the season in Week 6, there is a need for him if he is able.
To date, undrafted rookie Deontae Skinner has been tasked with handling inside linebacker duties in the 3-4, while Chris White and Ja’Gared Davis – waived in correspondence to Ayers’ arrival – have been branded linebackers only in title, making the 45-man gameday roster for their efforts in the kicking game.
But the attrition hasn’t ended there. With 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end Chandler Jones set to miss the next four weeks, as The Boston Globe’s Shalise Manza Young first reported, needs are revealing themselves at multiple positions.
Ayers’ past versatility and athleticism saw him step in as different pieces in Tennessee’s puzzle. He was well-regarded for his experience as a strong-side linebacker, an off-ball linebacker and a defensive end in four-man fronts.
Even so, it is fair to wonder what happened to the former UCLA Bruins edge-rushing standout since then. It’s fair to wonder how he fell out of favor in a defense he was integral to not long ago.
Ayers played in all 16 games through his first three NFL seasons, notching 43 starts in the process. And as a second-year pro in 2012, he massed 104 total tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble and an interception, before going on to rank as Pro Football Focus’ fourth overall 4-3 outside linebacker a year later in 2013.
He could run, he could stop the run, he could get into the offensive backfield, and he could drop back into the defensive backfield.
Yet as the Titans’ staff underwent renovations in the offseason, Ken Whisenhunt took over as head coach and Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator. The shift in plans resulted in a shift in scheme, moving from the 4-3 to a 3-4 base.
Not all the pegs fit into the same holes.
Not all surgeries fit into the recovery time, either. Ayers underwent his own renovations after last season concluded, heading in for two separate operations on his patellar tendons.
Somewhere between then and now, the 25-year-old found himself out of the team’s plans. He found himself on the sidelines, as Wesley Woodyard, Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, Avery Williamson, Zaviar Gooden and Quentin Groves all got an opportunity to fill the Tennessee linebacker spots.
Perhaps it was warranted. Perhaps Ayers was not suited for the future of the Titans as he embarked on the final year of his rookie contract. Perhaps he wasn’t the same player who looked the part despite battling knee injuries only a season prior.
It is uncertain what Ayers is now. But for head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots, there is no harm in finding out what he is.
And right now, he’s No. 52.