After FaxGate led to Elvis Dumervil being released by the Denver Broncos, the Pro Bowl defensive end went on to sign with the Baltimore Ravens in March. With Dumervil gone, Denver must find a replacement at right defensive end.
So, who are the candidates to fill the void created by Dumervil's departure?
According to John Elway, Denver's executive vice president of football operations, incumbent Broncos' defensive end Robert Ayers is the top candidate.
"As I've said, those guys out there (speaking of free agents Dwight Freeney and John Abraham) are options, but the bottom line is we also feel very comfortable with Robert Ayers," Elway told Dave Logan on 850 KOA Radio on Monday (via DenverBroncos.com). "He's going to be at the right (defensive) end—as of right now he's our starter at right end."
Other options include second-year defensive end Derek Wolfe (the team's first selection of the 2012 NFL draft), and youngsters Malik Jackson and Jeremy Beal.
Wolfe recorded six sacks his rookie year (a half-sack more than Houston's J.J. Watt recorded in his first year) and Beal was coming off an impressive training camp last summer before recording two sacks in his first preseason game. Unfortunately, Beal suffered a knee injury in that same preseason game, causing him to miss all of the 2012 season.
"We feel like we can go to bat with the guys that we've got if that's where it ends up, or if other things shake out we'll go that direction," concluded Elway.
Because Elway specifically mentioned Ayers, our focus will be on him in this piece.
Now before you go beating your chest about Ayers being a bust and the team needing to sign a veteran free agent, consider that Denver can still draft a defensive end later this month and may still sign a free agent later this summer. In addition, Ayers may be better than he has been given credit for in his three years in Denver.
As one Bronco fan who goes by "TheTroglodyte" has noted, Ayers' job has not been to rush the passer on every down.
"Ayers did his job last year and his job was not to rush the QB on most downs—it was to set the edge," Mr. Troglodyte said on Tuesday morning. "(Ayers) has improved every single year in the league and had (Von) Miller not beat him to the QB by one-eighth of a second on five or six plays (last season) he would have had quite a few more sacks,"
Ayers has received flack from fans for only recording 6.5 sacks since being drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft; but against the run, Ayers has been solid.
In the play below, Ayers is lined up on the edge against the Tennessee Titans from a game played in 2010.
Ayers comes down the line and tackles Chris Johnson in the backfield, something he did several times on the afternoon. Throughout the game, Ayers set the edge, not allowing Johnson to hit the corner and break away for a big gain.
Johnson rushed 19 times for 53 yards in the Broncos' 26-20 win, as Ayers and Denver's defense stuffed the electrifying running back. Ayers has proven himself against the run, and showed improvement as a rusher last season.
Ayers is a versatile lineman, moving from outside linebacker to defensive end to defensive tackle in Denver's varying defensive schemes. In the play below, he lined up at DT and broke through the line to sack Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
When Dumervil was on the field last season, Ayers was often moved inside—decreasing his chances of recording sacks. In the play above, Ayers still managed to create pressure, despite not gaining momentum rushing off the edge.
In the play below, Ayers is subbed in for Dumervil and asked to rush off the edge.
Rushing off the edge, Ayers is able to gain momentum and create pressure.
Ayers brought down Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton at the one-yard line, showing that he can be productive as an edge rusher.
If you're keeping track, that's a positive grade against the run, the versatility to play both inside and outside and the ability to rush off the edge are all being accredited to Ayers. Bust? Yeah, not quite yet.
Ayers has not been a sack machine, but Jack Del Rio, Denver's defensive coordinator, did not ask him to be one in 2012. Ayers saw minimal playing time last season, but produced when asked to.
With increased playing time, Ayers' productive should also increase. Elway is banking on that.
After reviewing the film, it looks like Elway will be spot-on once again.
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