Robert Ayers in a rush to shine for the Denver Broncos
After a two-year hiatus, expectations of top-tier production have again been placed upon Robert Ayers.
"We put some pressure on Robert Ayers to step up and have a good year and be the player we think he can be," John Elway, the man who runs the Broncos' football operations, said recently.
The pressure and expectations on Ayers were never greater than in his rookie season, 2009. A defensive end from Tennessee, Ayers was drafted by the Broncos in the first round, No. 18 overall — eight picks ahead of where Green Bay selected Clay Matthews III.
First-round defensive ends are expected to get sacks. And sacks haven't been easy to come by for Ayers. He had zero in his rookie season and has only 6½ in his four-year
"Sacks, they're tough to get. They really are," Ayers said. "But I do believe I can be a guy that gets a lot of sacks.
"My first two years, we had a coach where that wasn't necessarily his main objective. For example, I was dropping into coverage more than I was rushing the passer. So that's something that could go unnoticed.
"Sacks are about opportunity, it's about working, it's about being in the right place a lot of times and it's about having great talent. I feel like I'm going to work, I feel like I have talent, and I feel like this year, for the first year in my career, I'm going to have an opportunity to be put in a premier position to where I can rush the passer, contrary to the last few years."
A starting defensive end in 2010 and 2011, Ayers was replaced at the top of the depth chart last season by rookie Derek Wolfe. This year, the free-agent departure of right end Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens means Ayers will become a starter again, though newcomer Shaun Phillips figures to play on passing downs.
Also, the Broncos drafted defensive end Quanterus Smith in the fifth round. He was a terrific pass rusher at Western Kentucky before suffering a knee injury in November.
"I think we more than replaced Elvis as far as being able to put pressure on the quarterback," Elway said. "Another great thing about us, you look where we were last year, we were No. 1 in the league in sacks and so we have a lot of people who can put pressure on the quarterback not only with individual, but also with what (defensive coordinator) Jack Del Rio does scheme-wise. So we're going to have the ability to continue to pressure people whether Elvis is here or not."
With apologies to Phillips, who turns 32 on Monday, and Smith, who figures to use the better part of his rookie season healing and learning, Ayers is the key to making Broncos fans forget Dumervil, who led the league in sacks in 2009 and had 20½ the past two seasons.
No two NFL players progress at the same pace. For every Von Miller, who had 11½ sacks through his first 12 games with the Broncos, there is a Chris Clemons, who didn't get his first double-digit sack season until he was 29 years old and with his fourth team, in year six.
Ayers won't turn 28 until Sept. 6 — the day after Denver plays its season opener against Dumervil and the Ravens.
"I'm not satisfied with any of it," Ayers said Wednesday of his career. "There's a lot that I feel like I should've done. Whether it be because of my maturity level or opportunity or whatever, I didn't do the things I wanted to do coming into this league.
"This year is an opportunity for me to try to get back on track to where I want to be. That's what I'm focusing on. This is a big year for me and a big year for this team. I'm looking forward to doing big things."