Akeem Ayers played 10 defensive snaps for the Tennessee Titans this season before being traded to the New England Patriots on Oct. 22. Yet since then, the 2011 second-round pick has played 329 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, on the way to notching 16 tackles, three sacks, upwards of 20 quarterback hurries, a pass deflection and one interception over six games.
It has been a low-risk, high-reward investment for New England, having exchanged only a future sixth-round pick for a Tennessee seventh to acquire the former UCLA Bruin.
Ayers has been able to found a home, and a way to get on the field, in the Patriots’ multiple front. And that was illustrated against the San Diego Chargers last week, as No. 55 dropped back on a zone blitz to pick off quarterback Philip Rivers and set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in the third quarter.
“He has done about what we expected him to do,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his press conference Wednesday. “He learned very quickly, got on the field quickly, has a lot of position flexibility physically, and has a lot of position flexibility mentally in terms of assignments – rushing, covering, man coverage, zone coverage.”
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound college outside linebacker played in all 16 games through his first three NFL seasons with the Titans. And as a second-year pro in 2012, Ayers recorded 104 total tackles, six sacks, a forced fumble and an interception, gaining momentum heading into year three as a 4-3 outside linebacker.
Year three saw Ayers hold up well versus the pass and the run. But as the 25-year-old underwent two operations on his patellar tendons following the season, the Titans underwent coaching changes. A 3-4 base defense was installed along with new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and Ayers was slow to get back to carve a role within it.
Ayers’ experience playing anywhere from seven-technique to off-ball linebacker has assisted him in carving a role within New England’s defense, though. And with Chandler Jones sidelined with a hip injury since Week 7, the need has been there.
In turn, Ayers has become a prominent feature in the nickel defense the Patriots have featured over the last two months.
“His defensive-end role has become a lot bigger than the outside-linebacker role just because we haven’t been in a lot of our base defense,” Belichick added.
That has kept on the field, and it’s kept him at the line where he’s faced off with left tackles. But his versatility, as Belichick explained, has left the possibilities open.
“He played outside linebacker in college and at Tennessee, and he played defensive end in sub situations, which is pretty common for a lot of guys like him – a Rob Ninkovich type of guy,” Belichick said. “But until we actually had him we didn’t know how exactly that would manifest itself. But he’s smart, he’s had a lot of experience playing on his feet and he’s had a lot of experience playing down.”