EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Former Denver Broncos first-round pick Robert Ayers wasn't always thrilled with the way the Broncos used him. Drafted as a pass-rusher out of Tennessee, Ayers was asked by various Denver coaches and coordinators over the years to drop into coverage, to line up as a 3-4 defensive end ... to more or less do anything but rush the passer. Last year the Broncos used him where he was comfortable, and he ended up with 5.5 sacks, flashing what he could do as a key piece in the Broncos' run to the Super Bowl.
A free agent this offseason, Ayers signed with the New York Giants. So far in training camp and the preseason, the Giants have lined up Ayers at various positions on the defensive line. But whether he's played defensive end or defensive tackle, his mission has been the same: go get the quarterback.
"I can rush inside, I can rush outside," Ayers said this week. "When they signed me, they knew that's what I could do well. When I first came to the NFL, teams knew what I could do. The Giants are just using me to my strength."
The Giants, who had a mere 34 sacks last season, are trying to replace longtime defensive end Justin Tuck, who had 11 of them and is now with the Raiders. Ayers is among the candidates to be that replacement, but so is longtime Giants defensive lineman Mathias Kiwanuka, who ranks first on the depth chart right now at left defensive end and believes it's his time to be the man opposite right defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
"I look at it as, right now that's where I'm at, that's my position and I'm not going to relinquish it," Kiwanuka said. "But the main goal is about getting everybody involved, playing everybody as a group. Because you don't win with just one guy or just two guys. When you look at a defensive line, there's a rotation that has to be established early on so that guys understand how to play well with each other. That's how we've won championships."
Yes, the defensive line and specifically the pass rush have been staples of the Giants' Super Bowl title teams. Pierre-Paul and Kiwanuka were both on the last one, but they're the only ones currently in the defensive line room who were. So among them, Ayers, second-year end Damontre Moore and veteran Israel Idonije, who showed up as a bit of a surprise signing last week, the Giants are trying to piece together a rotation.
"You know, we're not here just to accept smaller roles," Ayers said. "We all want to be a starter. I definitely want to start. Mathias definitely wants to start. Damontre wants to start. Izzy is here now, and he wants to start. JPP wants to start. Everybody wants to be the lead dog. But the thing I like about it, it's all competition and it's all friendly. There's no bitterness, no rivalry or whatever. Everybody's here to work, and that's how we go about the business. If I'm not the starter, I'm not going to play any less hard."
That's partly because these guys all know they'll play no matter what. Ayers was lined up with Cullen Jenkins as the defensive tackles, for example, between Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul when the Giants went to four pass-rushers on third down against the Steelers last weekend. Idonije has been getting looks at defensive end in practice with Pierre-Paul moving inside. The Giants are trying to figure out what their new defensive line will and should look like, and they're sorting through the pieces.
"We have a lot of people, you know," said Jenkins, who has experience at defensive tackle and at defensive end in different fronts. "Rob can play inside, Kiwi and JPP, they can rush inside as well. So along that front, adding Damontre to the mix too, we've got a lot of guys on the D-line that can rush all across. So I think it'll be a lot of mixing and matching this year."