Lions hope Robert Ayers can boost struggling pass rush

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Robert Ayers

Allen Park — Following a disappointing string of preseason performances from the team’s defensive line, the Detroit Lions continue to scramble to bolster the unit days before the start of the regular season.

On Monday, the team announced the signing of veteran defensive end Robert Ayers.

Ayers, 32, is a nine-year veteran who has played for three teams. A first-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2009, he spent five years with the club before moving on to the New York Giants, and most recently, Tampa Bay.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder's most productive season came in 2015, when he tallied 41 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 12 games for the Giants. For his career, he has appeared in 120 games, recording 35 sacks and nine forced fumbles.

Durability has been an issue with Ayers. He has missed four games each of the past four seasons, with different injuries each year. Last year it was a concussion and shoulder injury that sidelined him. In previous years it was an ankle sprain, hamstring and torn pec that limited his playing time.

Ayers’ sack production dipped last season for Tampa — two in 12 games — but he was still a highly effective pass-rusher, according to Pro Football Focus. He generated an impressive 45 pressures on the quarterback.

Also according to PFF, no edge rusher has registered more quarterback hits in the past two seasons than Ayers’ 35.

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The Lions were the last team in the NFL to record a sack this preseason, going without one for nearly nine quarters of exhibition action before defensive tackle Sylvester Williams brought down Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick late in the first quarter of Friday’s game.

That was Detroit’s only sack on the evening. The team’s edge defenders, including former Pro Bowler Ziggy Ansah and free-agent addition Devon Kennard, have yet to get home on a rush.

In Kennard’s case, at least he’s been getting close. He’s recorded three pressures and two quarterback hits in the past two weeks.

Kennard spent his first two seasons playing with Ayers in New York and credited the veteran with helping him along during those early years.

“He showed me a lot of love when I came in and was a young guy,” Kennard said. “He was one of the older guys who took me under his wing and was instrumental in my development.”

Ayers’ addition serves as another temporary band-aid to one of Detroit’s most concerning position groups. Assuming he survives roster cuts next week, which seems likely given the timing of the signing, he would be the fourth player in the defensive line rotation who will be 30 or older at the start of the 2019 season.

It’s also another one-year contract for a unit that has little long-term stability. Ansah, who turns 30 next May, will play the 2018 campaign on a $17.1 million franchise tag. The projected starters at defensive tackle — Williams (30 in November) and Ricky Jean Francois (31) — are also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at season’s end.

Ayers was on the practice field for the Lions on Monday, but declined interview requests in the locker room after the session.

Also practicing for the first time with the team was linebacker Eli Harold, another stopgap solution to the team’s pass-rush woes. He was acquired in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers late last week.

Harold, an impressive athlete with explosive pass-rush potential coming out of Virginia in 2015, has struggled to find a footing in the NFL. Playing under three different defensive coordinators and position coaches during his short career, he has mustered only five sacks in 48 games (25 starts) over three seasons.

The low-risk acquisition cost the Lions a conditional seventh-round draft pick — payable only if Harold is on the roster for four regular-season games, according to an ESPN report. That gives the Lions a decent window to evaluate his ability to contribute.

“I think, again, like I mentioned the other night, this is a guy who’s got great leverage,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said of Harold. “He’s really long, does a good job with his punch and his strike, and you can really kind of see him use that leverage to his ability, especially out on the edge. Now he’s also showing some flashes in the pass-rush game, too, which is positive from that standpoint. So, we’ll see what that looks like when we get him in.”

The Lions finished 20th in sacks and 27th in quarterback pressure rate in 2017.