It’s been a while since the Buccaneers have had a player record 10 sacks in a single season. Not since Simeon Rice ripped off 14 in 2005, his eighth double-digit sack season and fifth straight in Tampa Bay.
Gerald McCoy has come extremely close the past three years, while Jacquies Smith looked well on his way last season before an injury slowed him down the second half of the year. Recent free agent pass rushers, Michael Johnson and George Johnson, have come nowhere near, with the latter failing to record a single sack in 2015.
Enter Robert Ayers. After a disappointing start to his career, the former first-round pick has seen his production increase the past three seasons – 20 sacks – earning him a three-year, $21 million deal from the Buccaneers. The team hopes his rise will continue and he can break the trend of previous free agent additions, and while Ayers isn’t making any stat promises, he’s confident he has what it takes.
“I definitely feel like I’m capable of (10 sacks), but I can’t say what I will do,” Ayers said Wednesday. “I just know that I believe in myself and I believe in the guys around me. I feel like I’m getting better, learning the game and understanding things better. I’m constantly trying to improve and learn, and I think playing with Gerald McCoy will definitely set me up to build on a lot of those things.”
While double-digit sacks are certainly a goal, Ayers said that stats could be misleading at times. For example, he would argue that 9.5 sacks in 12 games – his numbers last season – is more impressive than 10 in 16 games. Or the fact that quarterbacks have more leeway for what’s considered intentional grounding. And for what it’s worth, Ayers believes he’s already achieved the 10-sack milestone.
“It was one against Minnesota. I beat the guard, came through and jumped on him,” Ayers said, explaining how half of a sack was credited to a teammate. “I was pulling down and my teammate, George Selvie, jumped on him later, so they gave me a half. I kind of argued that it should’ve been a full, but maybe if George didn’t jump on him he would’ve thrown the ball away, so I understood that argument.”
Nevertheless, his production and playing time has risen dramatically over the past three years. Ayers credits his improvement to coaches working around his strength and putting him in position to succeed, which is the type of style that attracted him to the Bucs coaching staff and, in particular, Mike Smith.
After praising Jack Del Rio, his former defensive coordinator in Denver who helped revive his career, Ayers made comparisons between the two coaches. Like Del Rio, Ayers believes Smith knows how to maximize players’ talent, rather than fit them into schemes.
“I wanted to be a great player, and I understand from being in this league that you have to be in the right system,” Ayers said. “You can take more money and go some place where you’ll be asked to do things that you’re not good at, but for me, I wanted to be in a situation with a staff that knows what they’re getting. They saw me my last few years and I think they’re going to utilize me and allow me to do the things that I do well.
“I know what (Mike Smith) stands for and I don’t believe he’s going to steer me wrong. He’s had a lot of success and won a lot of games and talking to him about scheme, I think he’ll put me in a position to succeed. And to me that’s the No. 1 priority of what I want.”
For fans who want to see results on paper, double digit sacks would be considered a successful season.