Although many scouts believe that UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is a borderline first round draft choice at best, going against the grain of consensus opinion is nothing new for Bolts’ General Manager A.J. Smith. The Chargers’ GM has made a habit out of trusting his gut rather than going with the crowd and making the so-called “safe” pick.
Smith’s overall draft history can be classified as quite successful over his tenure with the Bolts, but his record in the first round doesn’t suggest that impressive of a résumé. He did not actually draft quarterback Philip Rivers in 2004, but the Eli Manning trade made him the default selection that season. Of the players in the years that followed, only Luis Castillo in 2005 and Antoine Cason in 2007 can be considered even moderate successes.
Beginning in 2005, Castillo was Smith’s second first round selection at number 28 overall and Shawne Merriman actually preceded him 12th overall in round one. “Lights Out” did have three spectactular years to open up his career with the Bolts, but his success was short lived after a knee injury in 2008, an injury-riddled campaign in 2009, and his subsequent release this past year.
2006’s first round pick is another story similar to that of Merriman’s as Antonio Cromartie came into the league and really burst onto the scene in his second season as a highlight machine picking off 10 passes and making plays all over the field. His following two seasons managed only half of that production combined and coupled with his off-field baggage, that led to his trade by the Bolts to the New York Jets in March of 2010.
Arguably Smith’s biggest swing and a miss took place in 2007 with the infamous reach for Craig “Buster” Davis in round one at the 30th overall pick. Considered a one-dimensional slot threat at best, injuries have hampered Davis for the bulk of his career as he only played five games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons combined. His 51 career receptions in four years of service make him one of the least effective picks during Smith’s time with the team.
Thankfully things improved in 2008 with the selection of cornerback Antoine Cason who was considered a bit of a reach with the 27th overall pick in the draft. Cason has dressed for every game in his three years with the team and stepped into a full-time starting role this past season. Although his statistics aren’t eye-popping, Cason did have his best year as a Bolt in 2010 accumulating 57 tackles and making four interceptions.
Larry English was selected 16th overall in 2009 and has struggled to live up to that first round stature during his first two years in San Diego. Granted the transition from defensive end to stand up linebacker in a 3-4 system is a difficult adjustment for most players, but English’s learning curve has been extraordinarily steep. The 2011 season will likely be a key year in judging whether he can finally develop into a full-time starter or if his filling as a first round choice was far overblown.
As for last year’s first round selection Ryan Mathews, one season doesn’t make a career, but injuries were definitely a problem for the former Fresno State Bulldog. Mathews was hobbled by a bad ankle for the majority of his rookie year and was able to start just 10 games in his first year with the Chargers. His 158 carries for 678 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground was helped in large part by a phenomenal 126 yard, 3 touchdown effort in week 17 against the Denver Broncos. The main hurdles facing Mathews in the coming years will be staying healthy and combating his severe case of fumblitis with a staggering 5 in his first year with the team.
And that brings us back to the present where GM Smith again appears to have his eyes set on a player with plenty to offer in terms of versatility and could remedy the Bolts lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the linebacker level. At 6’3” 254lbs., Ayers has the size necessary to be a pass rushing linebacker in a 3-4 system while still maintaining the ability to drop in coverage when necessary and pursue down the line of scrimmage. The former Bruin has plenty of room to grow as a player with great on-field intelligence and an uncanny ability to shed blockers.
The draft stock of Ayers has been hurt by a poor showing at the NFL Scouting Combine where he ran a 4.83 time in the 40 yard dash, but he plays faster than his timed speed suggests. He also displayed some high-quality technique in the positional drills at the Combine showing fluid change of direction and a real explosive burst. Another knock on Ayers is a lack of instincts as he had a tendency to be caught out of position often and relied too much on his size and athletic superiority to make plays in college. These issues are correctable with the proper film study, but could make him a project at the next level.
Given the fact that the Chargers have shown a “considerable interest” in Ayers according to the San Diego Union-Tribune and A.J. Smith’s propensity to think outside of the box (even a bit too much for his own good at times), it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Bolts take the UCLA product in the draft’s opening round. What fans must wonder if that does in fact become a reality is will Ayers be just another one of Smith’s first round mistakes or will he actually prove to be a worthy first rounder?
Now it’s your turn. After seeing the lack of long-term success that the Chargers have had in the first round of the draft during A.J. Smith’s time with the team, is he making another mistake by considering Akeem Ayers in the first round? Do you feel that picking an outside linebacker in the first round is an admission of failure by A.J. Smith with his pick of Larry English or just a pick to add some depth and solidify the linebacking corps? Do you like the idea of having Akeem Ayers wearing Chargers gear on draft day? Please fill up the comments section below with your thoughts!
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