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Move From Nashville to Foxborough Puts Ayers in the Spotlight

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Jim Davis/The Boston Globe


Christmas is next week and Hanukkah starts Tuesday night so there’s still time for Patriots’ fans to include Tennessee Titans’ coach Ken Whisenhunt on their holiday shopping lists.

And really, why wouldn’t they? Whisenhunt gave the Pats a gift when he sent Akeem Ayers to Foxborough for pretty much nothing back in late October. He deserves something in return for such a useful, purposeful and productive player, doesn’t he? You know, besides being mocked and made fun of?

It’s pretty difficult to fathom how Whisenhunt couldn’t find a spot for Ayers on a team that’s 2-11, has lost seven in a row and ranks 30th out of 32 teams in total defense. It’s a near certainty that Ayers is grateful for his former coach’s absence of creativity or common sense. So too are the Patriots, who secured themselves a young, dynamic, playmaking defensive end/linebacker hybrid who has exhibited a tremendous football IQ since the trade on October 22, as evidenced by how quickly and seamlessly he’s picked up a new system mid-season.

Ayers grew up in Los Angeles and he stayed home for college, playing three years for UCLA before being drafted in the second round, 39th overall, by the Titans in the 2011 NFL Draft. He played the full 16-game schedule in each of his first three seasons, with 104 tackles and six sacks adding up to a career year in 2012. But the combination of surgeries on each of his patellar tendons and a new system brought in by Whisenhunt, who replaced Mike Munchak as the Titans’ head coach following the 2013 regular season, rendered him inactive in all but two of this season’s first seven games.

But when Ayers, who simply kept quiet and continued to work despite his lack of playing time, was 100 percent and ready to contribute, Whisenhunt chose to trade him as opposed to try to implement him into the Titans’ defense. The Patriots, who had just lost Chandler Jones to the hip injury that’s kept him out nearly two months, were happy to take him in and all it cost them was a sixth round pick.

The Pats have made plenty of in-season acquisitions in the Bill Belichick era, particularly this year. And you could make the argument that Ayers, along with Aqib Talib in 2012, is the best of them all. In his six games, he’s played 327 of a possible 418 snaps on defense, according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. During that time, he’s registered 13 tackles, three sacks and a surprisingly athletic interception that came at a critical juncture of last week’s win over the Chargers.

After showing how multi-dimensional his game can be last Sunday night, Ayers was a hot topic in Foxborough during the week. Belichick had nothing but positive commentary to impart when asked about Ayers but it was a specific comparison offered up by the coach that really stood out.

“He’s like a Rob Ninkovich-type of guy,” Belichick said when speaking to the media on Wednesday. “He learned very quickly, got on the field quickly, has a lof of position flexibility physically and has a lot of position flexibility mentally in terms of assignments and rushing, covering, man coverage, zone coverage. He has a good feel for the game. He’s a smart guy and he’s an instinctive player, like Rob, different than Rob, but like Rob.”

High praise indeed. We all can see what an impact Ayers has had on the Pats’ defense, how he filled the hole created by Jones’s injury, how versatile he is. But to hear Belichick compare him to one of the most vital members of the team over the past handful of years speaks volumes as to how crucial his presence and development has been over the team's last six games.

Ayers has been so good, it’s been easy to forget – at least for a minute or two – that Jones will be coming back at some point. The Pats’ budding star out of Syracuse has been practicing since Thanksgiving week and, although he’s still listed as questionable, there’s a chance he suits up for Sunday’s home game against the Dolphins. It makes sense to assume that whenever he does return, Jones will be spotted and not just because it will give him that much more time to shake off any rust and make his way back to being 100 percent healthy.

The Pats have proven that they can not only survive without him they can thrive. It’s no secret that this is the best edition of the Pats’ defense in years and Ayers has fit right into that mold without anyone missing a beat. If he hadn’t done so already, Ayers proved in the San Diego game that he can do plenty more than just get after the quarterback off the edge which means that we’re likely to see him and Jones on the field at the same time, especially if Dont’a Hightower remains sidelined for much longer.

Ayers has earned it. He’s a long way from Nashville, where he never sniffed the playoffs and mostly toiled in obscurity as the organization went from 9-7 in his rookie season to the bottom of the NFL barrel this year. That’s surely something not lost on Ayers in the slightest.

Oh, and don't forget to thank Ken Whisenhunt, Pats' fans. Ayers probably does so everyday.

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