FOXBOROUGH — In his spare time, Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers likes to reach for his sketch pad and pencil. He taught himself how to draw in grammar school, while growing up in Los Angeles, and his preferred subject is superheroes. Spider-Man and Superman are two of his favorite subjects.
Asked whether there is any correlation between his two artistic passions — one graphic, the other gridiron — Ayers said, “Not that I recall. There probably is, but I don’t know what it’s like not to have the creativity.’’
Ayers, acquired from Tennessee in late October to shore up a banged-up linebacker corps, has created in a mere half season a respectable self-portrait in New England’s overall defensive scheme. Versatile, strong, and agile, the former UCLA standout and Titans second-round draft pick (2011) has regained his footing as a solid NFL contributor, after spending the early weeks of the 2014 season as a disenfranchised piece of Tennessee’s defense. Now this sketcher of superheroes stands but two victories from playing in the Super Bowl.
“Coming in off injury and wanting to prove myself,’’ said Ayers, 25, reflecting on why the fit here has been seamless for him. “Just playing football the way I normally would play. And being around guys who just really motivate you. Being on a team like this, you want to perform well, especially when a team trades for you — that is even more motivation.’’
A pass-rushing standout at Verbum Dei, a Jesuit high school in downtown LA, Ayers was not in dogged pursuit of the NFL dream until scholarship offers started to come his way late in his high school career. Until then, rather than reciting the standard “Get me to the big-time or bust’’ meme, he had flipped from one sport to another each season, from football to basketball to baseball, not really concerned if any of the games one day would lead to gainful employment.
“I was only doing it because it was fun,’’ he recalled. “I was literally playing sports year-round. Fun. My friends were playing. It was something we just did, just playing for fun.’’
By his junior year at “The Verb,’’ Ayers was the best defender in California, all the while splitting time on the field between pass rushing and pass catching. He had legs and hands for both, something that then-USC coach Pete Carroll spotted when Ayers attended a high school football camp held on the Trojans campus.
Carroll, recalled Ayers, requested that he hang around after camp one day to catch a few passes.
“I am dead serious: I still think I can go out there right now and score a couple of touchdowns,’’ said Ayers, who, at 6 feet 3 inches, 255 pounds, could be a suitable NFL target. “I had some offers from USC and Arizona State, interested in me as a tight end. Pete was watching us play that one day, and I was making some good catches and good touchdowns. After it was over, he said, ‘Come with me, I want you to run a few routes.’ It was me and Pete and one of his assistants. They had me run about 15 routes. I was winded, but . . . I did pretty good.’’
Disappointed in draft
Ayers ultimately opted for UCLA, if only, he said, “for a change of scenery.’’ (Had he gone to USC instead, he could have all but commuted on foot from his family’s home to the campus.) He redshirted his first year with the Bruins, then built a beefy résumé over the next three seasons, mixing 14 sacks and 6 interceptions in with his overall total of 183 tackles (128 solo). Come the 2011 Draft, he flew to New York City, excited over the prospect of being selected in the first round, but his name wasn’t called.
“Of course I was disappointed,’’ recalled Ayers. “But it’s the NFL Draft, so you don’t know . . . you never know.’’
Ayers flew back to LA early the next day, his traveling party consisting of his mother, brother, sister, aunt, and uncle. They were in two cars, headed home from LAX, when the phone call came that he had been selected by the Titans (Round 2, No. 39 overall).
“It rang about five minutes before we got to the house,’’ he said. “We were all pretty excited.’’
Ayers signed a four-year entry deal with Tennessee, worth a total $4.9 million, and jumped out to a stellar career start, becoming the first Titans rookie in nearly a decade to start in all 16 games. The following year, he led the club in tackles (110) and recorded a half-dozen sacks, a mark even more impressive when considering he typically didn’t line up in the defensive end role he has held since arriving with the Patriots.
But things began to change drastically for Ayers in 2013, in large part, he said, because he was injured late in the previous season. He played in pain throughout 2013, ultimately to have surgery on both knees (torn patellar tendons) at season’s end. Had he to do it over, he said, he would have had the surgery immediately after the 2012 season.
“I was being told, ‘Oh, it’s fine, you just gotta rehab it,’ things like that,’’ said Ayers. “So I ended up just doing my regular offseason, and then during training camp my knees were, like, bad, bad throughout. I could barely run or barely shuffle. I didn’t take time off through training camp. I thought it was just pain, I could play through it . . . ice it every day. But it continued to get worse and worse and worse. Then I ended up getting a high ankle sprain in the second preseason game. And then they wanted me to play the first game of the season. And then I went from something like 90 percent of the snaps to like 60, 50 . . . ’’
Forget the Titans
By the time this season began, Ayers could read the Tennessee tea leaves. He was unable to participate in offseason OTAs, and the unofficial depth chart had him stacked behind the likes of Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, and Quentin Groves. He was inactive for five of the Titans’ first seven regular-season games and rarely played otherwise, taking the field for only 13 snaps with special teams units in Game 2 and then 10 defensive snaps in Game 5.
So his Oct. 21 trade was welcome news? “I was hoping for it the entire time,’’ Ayers said of the deal, which cost the Patriots only a flip of sixth- and seventh-round picks in the 2015 Draft. “It just wasn’t working, and I kinda knew that before training camp started, you kinda get that feeling. But I was doing everything I could to get on the field. I guess at the end of the day they already kinda had their mind made up.’’
Upon arriving at season’s midpoint, Ayers needed to undertake a crash course in Patriots defense, in particular with Chandler Jones sidelined by injury and Jerod Mayo done for the year. There was playing time to be had, plenty of it, but it meant intense hours reviewing the playbook and staring at the TV monitor, much of it with linebackers coach Pat Graham at his side.
“The first and second week, I was here literally from morning to night, just getting it down,’’ said Ayers, a father to twin 2-year-old girls, Peyton and Cassidy. “I didn’t really know how much I was going to play when I first got here. The first couple of weeks, it was really a lot, and then I started to pick it up a lot more. I am still learning.’’
Jones’s return from the injured list, to no surprise, cut back Ayers’s playing time in the final three games of the regular season. In the prior six games, beginning with his Oct. 26 debut vs. the Bears, Ayers had played in 329 of 424 (77.6 percent) defensive snaps. In the three weeks that followed, he dropped to 61 of 204 (29.9 percent). He has not been marginalized, but for now, Rob Ninkovich is the rusher from the left and Jones from the right. Ayers, relieved to be working again, has become the designated pass rush reliever.
“I love rushing the quarterback,’’ said Ayers, who has four sacks to his credit in nine games here. “Just getting the sack on the big down when you really need it. Get him down, get the turnover, and put the ball back in the offense’s hands, especially when it’s a close game. It’s just getting after the quarterback, beating your man, coming up with a huge play for your team, and the fans are excited. That’s probably one of the things I like doing the most.’’