Mailbag: Should Robert Ayers be cut?

Happy Sunday, friends.  Once again, the mailbag has yielded a good question.  This is one of those parts of the offseason where nothing is really going on, and where we’re really likely to have time to address good questions, so keep ‘em coming.

Today, from our friend Haiku Boy:

I have an ongoing argument with this contrarian frenemy of mine who keeps insisting they should cut Robert Ayers. I know the cap savings would be minimal (roughly one million) but he points to his lackluster statistics, low defensive snap count, and frankly the fact he was picked by McDaniels.

 Is there any way this will happen, and would there be any way to justify the move? This guy is seriously bugging the crap out of me.

No problem, HB.  The price for the answer is one haiku in the comment section.  Whenever a fan talks about getting rid of a player, for whatever reason, the first question that must be asked and answered is, “Can you get somebody better (or at least at a better value) to fill the guy’s role, and where’s he coming from?”

The first thing you have to do to answer that question is ascertain what the player’s role is.  Ayers is the backup open-side DE, and he plays some in sub packages as an extra pass rusher.  The first thing I’d emphasize is backup; it begins to explain the low number of snaps.  The next thing I’d emphasize is open-side DE.  The Broncos view the two DE positions as different positions, and not as being interchangeable.  Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are their closed-side DEs, and Elvis Dumervil and Ayers are their open-side guys.  Wolfe and Dumervil both played more than 86% of the defensive snaps, which is an unusually high amount for a defensive lineman.  That’s the rest of the reason for the low number of snaps (about 30% for Ayers).

As for lackluster statistics, according to PFF, Ayers had two sacks, nine QB hits, and 14 hurries in 240 snaps where he was nominally rushing the passer.  (I say nominally rushing the passer, because the Broncos play run first on neutral downs, when they don't have a big lead, and that tactic makes it harder to get to the QB on those snaps.)  That’s a pass rush productivity (a PFF signature stat) of 8.5%. which is a little above-average for 4-3 DEs.

In their other key signature stat for DEs, run stop percentage, Ayers was better than either Wolfe (6.2%) or Dumervil (4.8%) with a 7.5% result.  That would tie for eighth in the NFL if Ayers had enough snaps to qualify.

In other words, Ayers doesn’t have lackluster statistics for a backup open-side DE.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better replacement as a two-way player at his price point, particularly without having to trade for one or use a 2013 draft pick.

As far as your buddy’s problem with the fact that Josh McDaniels drafted Ayers, tell him that I said stop being a wanker.  Does he want to get rid of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Zane Beadles too?  Was he mad that Knowshon Moreno did such a solid job filling in for Willis McGahee?

You can be glad a coach that you didn’t like is gone, and still accept that some good came of his time in Denver.  The world is not black and white.

Here’s the deal with Ayers.  He was drafted 18th overall, and he hasn’t quite lived up to that draft status.  He was picked ahead of Clay Matthews, but I’m fairly certain that McDaniels didn’t view them as similar players.  He drafted Ayers to be a Sam LB in a 3-4, and to set the edge in the running game with power.  For the most part, that’s what he’s done in his career, and this year, I saw a real improvement in his pass rushing repertoire in his limited snaps. 

Your frenemy can be sad that the Broncos don’t have Matthews, but the reality is that he wasn’t viewed as a sure thing for NFL success.  You ever hear the term one-year wonder?  That was Matthews coming out of USC.  If you ask the average scout, those guys are the ones who flame out.  By contrast, Mike Mayock predicted that Ayers would be the best defensive player in the 2009 class within three years.  Projecting football players is a crapshoot.

Just because Ayers isn’t the best defensive player from the 2009 class doesn’t mean he isn’t a useful player.  Remember how all these amateur draftniks talked about how Courtney Upshaw was a pass rusher, and a huge steal for the Ravens at the top of the second round?  Upshaw is actually a really close proxy for Ayers – not a quick twitch guy, but a dude who can win with power on the edge.  He’ll probably never have more than five or six sacks in a season, and Ravens fans will be disappointed with that, but the team knew what they were getting with him, just like I’m pretty sure McDaniels knew what he was getting with Ayers.

If the Broncos let Ayers go and tried to make do with some replacement-level guy, they’d be getting worse, and for very little cash and cap savings ($1.06M) savings, leaving $1,181,250 of dead money1.  They say you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; I say your buddy shouldn’t let his vicarious regrets of the actions of a bygone regime convince him that an above-average player (especially for a backup) should be thrown away.

1 An earlier version of this said there would be a $2,241,250 cap savings if the Broncos were to release Ayers, but that was incorrect - Doug

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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