Evaluating the Steelers’ 2016 Draft Picks: WR DeMarcus Ayers

ayers

Photo: Jon Shapley, staff, Houston Chronicle

Unlike the majority of the Steelers’ picks, Ayers wasn’t even on my radar in the lead-up to the draft. This was hardly his fault, of course, so let’s remedy this right away! Once again I’ll begin with the material from the NFL scouting report and continue on from there.

The NFL evaluators graded Ayers at 5.02 and projected him as a UDFA. I’m not going to get crazy with the numbers like I did yesterday, but I’ll just note that there were 16 guys graded lower than Ayers who were picked up in the 4th, 5th, and 6th rounds.
Ayers declared for the draft a year early, which led to the following comment in the “Sources Tell Us” section:

“Should have gone back to school and worked on his craft. Right now I don’t think he can distinguish himself enough from others at that same position. I need to see those system guys transcend the scheme and I didn’t see it.” — NFL personnel director

What did the Steelers see in him? Almost certainly their primary interest was his punt and kickoff return experience. (Kevin Colbert essentially said as much, saying he was the best punt returner in the class.) He’s 5’9″, and we all know that when the Steelers bring the little short guys (Chris Rainey, Dri Archer et al) into the huddle, the play gets blown up immediately. The Steelers have a number of larger wide receivers with NFL experience and a few promising candidates on last year’s practice squad. But for whatever reason they haven’t found the right guy to take the punt return duties off of Antonio Brown. And I believe I am speaking for a large portion of Steeler Nation when I say I am seriously interested in them finding someone else to put back there. The NFL profile definitely gives some hope for this:

Ayers was an explosive, if undersized, running back from Texas when he arrived on the UH campus, but left after three years as one the best combination slot receiver/return specialists in the country. Getting the ball in his hands was important to Houston coaches, so he lined up as the primary kick returner as a true freshman, earning first-team All-AAC honors (37-1,021, one TD) while working his way into a starting spot the final three games of the year (11-130, one TD receiving). Ayers continued to return kicks in his sophomore year (34-592) but also started eight games as a receiver (33-335, two TD). With the exciting Greg Ward, Jr. operating as the team’s quarterback (and leading rusher) in 2015, Ayers fed off that energy to earn first-team all-conference with 98 catches for 1,222 yards and six scores while going back to his roots as a running back at times (25-147, one TD rushing). He also moved from returning kickoffs to taking back punts, earning first team accolades there as well (28-290, one TD). In the Cougars’ Peach Bowl win over Florida State, Ayers threw for a touchdown, too. That meant he had done just about everything he could as a collegiate offensive weapon, so he decided to head to the NFL instead of returning with Ward for another run in 2016.

I found the last sentence to be really interesting., especially when contrasted with the anonymous quote above. The explanation could be due to a couple of possibilities.

Perhaps Ayers was aware that he wasn’t going to get the coaching or opportunities or experience to grow as a player sufficiently to vastly improve his draft stock. There’s always the chance of a devastating injury in a final season which would stop a career before it begins. And after all, he’s always going to be 5’9″, and for a receiver that pretty much serves as a sort of glass ceiling. 31 wide receivers were taken in 2016, and 24 of them were 6′ tall or more. To my surprise, a wide receiver shorter than Ayers was drafted—Jakeem Grant (5’6″) was taken by the Dolphins in Round 6. But he is also substantially faster than Ayers and jumped an inch and a half higher.

On the other hand, it could mean that Ayers had started believing his own press. It’s necessary to believe in yourself, but you also have to be realistic about your weaknesses and limitations if you are going to be a good candidate for being “coached up,” and the comment from the unnamed NFL executive would seem to hint at that.

Let’s look at what the NFL scouts believed to be his strengths:

Creates doubt in cornerbacks at the stem with exaggerated head and shoulder fake and aggressive jab step. Has working understanding of leverage in routes and works to create desired movement from defender. Gets off the line and into routes with forward lean and desired acceleration. Can slip initial tackler and add to his yards after catch. Talented punt returner with good ability to weave through traffic and find the open doors. Frame has more room for muscle.

As we have cause to know by now, getting open isn’t purely a matter of speed. In fact, the Dri Archer experiment makes one wonder whether a lot of pure speed can create a reliance on it that prevents a player from developing the other tools needed to succeed as a returner. Dri Archer’s straight-line speed wasn’t much use when he hesitated slightly, or when he couldn’t seem to see where the blocking was setting up.

This made me curious to go back and look at Archer’s draft profile. He graded much higher than Ayers (5.58) and was much more decorated as a running back, but had no punt return experience, at least that they mentioned. But the really interesting part was the “Weaknesses” section:

Very short and rail thin with no strength or running power. Not a tackle-breaker and goes down easy on contact. Limited inside runner. Can be knocked off routes easily and struggles catching on contact. Not a nuanced route runner. Very marginal, underpowered blocker. Could stand to do a better job securing the ball in traffic. Is not ideally built to withstand a full NFL season.

This unfortunately continued to be the case. No player, of course, is without weaknesses. Even Laremy Tunsil had a good-sized paragraph detailing problems with his game. The question is, are they fixable weaknesses? The Steelers evidently thought Archer’s problems were fixable (although you can’t change “short” and it’s pretty hard to do much about “rail thin” that is an improvement) but they apparently weren’t. Let’s look at Ayers’ weaknesses:

Smaller than ideal. Limited to slot work in the pros. Benefited from scheme that fed him bubble screens, speed outs and jet sweeps. Inexperienced route runner lacking work in more complex passing attack. Catch and run specialist with just 53.1 percent of his receptions going for first downs. Not as sudden as expected. Has shown struggles with double catches and focus drops. Slight hesitation into his routes off snap. Will have to learn to play against more physical corners looking to jam and body him.

I’m no expert, but it seems the problems here are more about unknowns than clear problems that are difficult to fix. The part about the scheme, which was the basis for the NFL exec’s complaint, is an unknown. And it’s fair enough to take a chance on this with a 7th round pick.

So let’s see what else we can find out about him. The first thing that caught my eye was in a March 11, 2016 interview on profootball spot:

Do you have a good story about going head to head with CB William Jackson?

“Yeah, me and William have had some battles. William was a JUCO guy coming out. When I was a freshman he got on campus as a sophomore and we came in together. We both had high expectations. We had some great battles. We’ve learned a lot from each other. For me, sticking a bigger corner and learning how to get in and out of my cuts against a bigger corner. To him, you know, sticking with a quicker guy, being able to transition from the slot to the boundary.

I feel like we helped each other develop as a player and we have a great relationship on and off the field. I was actually talking to him last night. He was just motivating me. Telling me to stay working, stay positive throughout the injury that I had, and just nail Pro Day. He’s a great dude, great teammate, and a great friend just to be around on a daily basis.”

I suppose it could either be an advantage or a disadvantage that he and Jackson are familiar with each other. But it is nice to know he’s accustomed to that level of competition, at least at the college level.

Apparently it was actually due to the visit to watch Jackson that Steelers officials noticed Ayers, and they were taken with his route running. He also has good hands, and only dropped two out of 90+ catchable balls while in the slot last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Now let’s find out who he models himself on:

Is there a certain NFL player(s) that you have molded your game around? If so, in what aspects?

“Antonio Brown. He is my favorite. Him, Emmanuel Sanders, Julian Edelman was one of those guys that had a similar transition to the NFL like I did. Antonio Brown is one of the hardest working guys in the league. Sixth-round guy, great punt returner and developed into a great receiver after one season in the NFL. Just watching him on YouTube and Instagram, just those kind of things, offseason training, his preparation leading up to game day, his route running, just everything. He’s an all-around player, not just a guy who can play outside or inside. He has a lot of versatility to his game and I look forward to watching him on Sunday’s and playing against him on the weekends.”

In that case, being drafted by the Steelers must be a dream come true for Ayers. I also like how he described himself:

If you had to describe yourself in three words, which words would you choose?

“Loyal, determined and motivated.”

Sounds like a Steeler to me! So what is it that has created this in Ayers?

In the past few years he has come through the crucible of both professional and personal crisis. He didn’t mesh well with his first coach at Houston, didn’t like the quarterback, and was uncertain about the new coach. But all of these things paled in relation to the still-unsolved drive-by shooting death of his beloved step-brother last July. That, combined with the death of his grandfather and two close friends within the space of a year, made the buy-in to what new coach Tom Herman was selling difficult. But as this Houston Chronicle article from last October details:

…when No. 10 bought in, he let go and never looked back.

“It’s crazy how Demarcus has changed,” [quarterback Greg] Ward said.

The take of the man who possesses Ayers’ trust and football heart?

“Light-years,” Herman said. “Complete 180.”

A more recent Chronicle article talks about Ayers’ disappointing combine 40 time:

It was an extremely rough day for University of Houston wide receiver DeMarcus Ayers on Saturday at the NFL scouting combine as a broken hand affected his workout.

Ayers ran a glacially slow 40-yard dash, a 4.72 that was the slowest time for a wide receiver in years. Ayers said he normally runs high 4.4 to low 4.5 times, adding that his best time ever was a 4.42.

Ayers recently broke his pinkie finger on his right hand when he slipped during training and underwent surgery two weeks ago, having pins inserted into his finger to speed up the healing process. Ayers said he was unable to get tension in his hand to push off while wearing a cast, triggering a slow start to his sprint. The pins will be removed Monday.

“I didn’t perform how I wanted to, I couldn’t get tension on the ground with my hand,” Ayers said. “I wanted to show the teams I could come out here and compete and play through injuries. It was the worst start I’ve had in training just because I’ve got this cast on.

“I wanted to show I can compete under any circumstances. I’m not going to make any excuses for myself. I ran well, I couldn’t get a fast start and it killed me in the long run. I was very disappointed.”

I’m afraid his University of Houston bio page shattered any hopes I may have had for him academically, as not only did he leave a year early but had never actually declared a major. It did say, however, that Ayers lists his brother Tre’Nair Felton who serves in the U.S. military as the most influential person in his life. He has also done volunteer work, including with the Special Olympics and the Red Cross. So Children’s Hospital visits should seem pretty easy after doing hurricane relief work.

update: An article posted this morning on steelers.com by Teresa Varley gives us more insight into what plans the Steelers have for Ayers and how he responded. After giving the list that Special Teams coach Danny Smith uses to evaluate punt returners, and noting Smith said that according to his list Ayers was the highest-rated punt returner in the draft, the article continues with Ayers’ thoughts:

Ayers said there is an art to returning punts and you have to focus and then be ready to roll.

“I am back there seeing the way my teammates set up their blocks, where they will be to make a guy miss,” said Ayers. “Once you make that first person miss you make a move and have fun with it. I try to think make the first guy miss, make one cut and go.”

Whether he can actually do this or not in the NFL, this confirms the idea that Ayers is aware that much more than straight-line speed is required.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of the sweetest catches you’ll see in a while:

to be continued

5 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    What I have seen of him on tape was all positive. I have hopes for him but the academics is worrying (says the guy who originally was a high school dropout). Did he declare early because he was worried about his academics? That is the question I would have asked him if I had interviewed him prior to the draft.

    Time will tell but I wish him well. There is always room for another good receiver, especially if they are decent PR as well.

    Like

    • I value academics, and like to see that in a player, but I’m guessing they are hardly critical to success in the NFL. And honestly, not everyone is cut out for academics, and way too many kids go to college. (Of course, the stupidly accelerated credentials required for almost any job contributes to this.) You can be smart enough without being good at academics. But to me, it’s a way of seeing if a kid feels a responsibility to his own future, if you will, and derives something of value from the college experience other than a chance at the NFL draft. That said, it’s not going to work for everyone.

      Like

      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        I felt earning my degree (at night classes) was very important to me and my personal development but I will be the first to admit that it had little to do with what I did for a living.

        Like

  • This won’t be the first time a miserable time in the 40 played a role in the Steelers drafting a wideout. There was a kid from some small school in Alabama who wore shoes that didn’t exactly fit and ran on a wet field and did a 4.7 or 4.8 and everybody shied away from him. Noll knew how good he was and wanted to pick him in round two. And then in round two. Bill Nunn said to wait because nobody else knew how good this kid was. (Of course they didn’t. Nunn squirreled away the tape that was supposed to be passed around from team to team.) They drafted the kid with the lousy time in the 40 in round number four. And now, he’s a part owner of the team and in the Hall of Fame. John Stallworth ran a terrrible 40, but it seems to have worked out okay.

    Like

  • Oops.” Noll knew how good he was and wanted to pick him in round two. And then in round two.”

    That should read…..”And then in round three.”

    Homer regrets any inconvenience.

    Like

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