<
>

St. Louis Rams linebacker Akeem Ayers hopes to put defense over the top

Akeem Ayers saw a chance to help make this Rams defense one of the best in the league. Elsa/Getty Images

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- From the outside, any defensive free agent hitting this year's market looking for a better opportunity almost certainly shouldn't have been interested in the St. Louis Rams.

The Rams, after all, figured to bring back all of their defensive starters and most of their depth. They released defensive tackle Kendall Langford for salary cap reasons but otherwise, spots on the Rams' defensive depth chart figured to be few and far between.

But where most free agents probably saw a logjam, linebacker Akeem Ayers saw the chance to be the final piece to help the Rams defense take the next step to a top 10 or top five group -- without the expectation that he'll have to be some sort of cure-all.

"I like the defense," Ayers said. "I like the scheme they run and they've got players all across the board. This is an opportunity for me to just come in, play in a defense I'm familiar with, play with coaches I'm familiar with, it's all about me just coming back and getting back into the linebacker mode because I spent the last almost year and a half being a defensive end. Come back, get in the groove, work on my drops, get working back into my reads and all that. Other than that, I think this fits me very well."

The Rams apparently felt the same way, signing Ayers to a two-year, $6 million contract within the first few days of free agency. Upon arrival in St. Louis, Ayers has been reunited with linebackers coach Frank Bush and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. He's also been able to return to his roots as a linebacker in the Rams' 4-3 scheme after finishing last season as an end in New England's 3-4 defense.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has said that Ayers will compete with incumbent Jo-Lonn Dunbar for the team's third linebacker spot though early indications are that Ayers is the favorite to win the job.

In getting back to the type of defense he is most accustomed to, Ayers brings with him improved pass rush ability he seemed to find with the Patriots after the midseason trade that sent him there in 2014. In the season's second half, he posted 17 tackles, four sacks and an interception, working primarily as a pass-rusher.

"One of my biggest goals and something I always talked about since I got drafted was me being more of a full-time rusher," Ayers said. "My first couple years, I really didn't get the opportunity and I felt like rushing was something that I do well. When I got to New England, they said you are going to be an end, strictly an end. So I saw that as my opportunity to show what I can do as a rusher and really just get the opportunity I wanted to be able to rush.

"I just wanted to be able to show that, show my versatility. I love being a linebacker, I love being able to move around but I'm glad I was able to show that so when I come here if I ever get the opportunity, they know what I'll be able to do."

It's probably a safe bet that Ayers will have plenty of opportunities with Williams as the defensive coordinator. With Alec Ogletree on the other side capable of handling more duties in coverage, it's safe to expect Ayers to spend the bulk of his time close to the line of scrimmage.

There, Ayers has the ability to jam up tight ends with his strength and come on regular blitzes. The Rams led the league last year by blitzing on 48.2 percent of their opponents drop backs. Williams likes to offer different looks, using safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks interchangeably in his various blitz packages. So whether Ayers beats out Dunbar for the starting job likely won't matter much when it comes to finding chances for Ayers to get after the quarterback.

"Yeah, that's why I came here," Ayers said. "Everything he loves to do is what I love to do and I feel like I do well. That was a big point for me."