ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- By any standard for a pick in the middle of the first round, Robert Ayers' career has been less than what could be expected -- at least to this point.
Six-and-a-half sacks and 79 total tackles represent the kind of numbers that the Broncos expected from a single season when they picked Ayers with the 16th selection of the 2009 first round. Those represent his career numbers in a four-season experience that has seen his job description in a constant state of flux: from 3-4 outside linebacker to a few snaps as a 3-4 end, to 4–3 end and tackle in 2011 and finally to energetic backup in 2012, where he played arguably the best game of his career when he replaced the injured Elvis Dumervil at Carolina on Nov. 11 of last year and notched a sack.
That day, Ayers showed his potential -- and showed that he had used that summer's demotion to the second team properly. He didn't sulk; instead he doubled his efforts and displayed calm professionalism. He also showed enough to be a part of the solution to replace Dumervil after he was released in March; he is now the unquestioned starter at one defensive end slot.
But this career progression has not been what anyone wants from a first-rounder. And whether it's fair or not, Ayers' progress will forever wedded to that status.
The instability of the defensive coaches, overall philosophy and Ayers' role for the first four years of his career is a detail that gets overlooked. But others have overcome the constant changes on defense to succeed. One of those is Dumervil, who became a three-time Pro Bowler while playing for seven different defensive coordinators.
As Ayers prepares to replace Dumervil in the starting lineup, he won't use the past issues as a crutch; no matter who called the defense since 2009, Ayers was a constant, and he didn't perform up to his own expectations, let alone that of the team or its supporters.
"I'm not satisfied with any of it. There's a lot that I feel like I should've done," Ayers said. "Whether it be because of my maturity level or opportunity or whatever, point blank, period, I didn't do the things I wanted to do coming into this league."
He's started before. But this time, it's different. Denver's defense is established as one of the league's elite units after a year under Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio and two seasons in the 4–3 that John Fox installed upon becoming head coach. Von Miller has become a pass-rushing terror and already has the club's single-season sack record. Drafts and free-agent expenditures have targeted and upgraded the interior slots. The front seven has become a paramount priority -- particularly in its efforts to rush the passer.
For Ayers, merely maintaining career sack pace of one sack every 8.8 games will be unacceptable, especially on a unit that tied for the league lead in sacks last year. With the team's goals lofty, and his own contract expiring after this season, Ayers will have every kind of incentive.
"This year is an opportunity for me to try to get back on track to where I want to be. That's what I'm focusing on," he said. "This is a big year for me and a big year for this team. I'm looking forward to doing big things. That's all I'm really focusing on is this year, and the past four years are a lot of motivation."
But whether that results in more sacks -- the primary standard for any 4–3 defensive end -- is in question. Shaun Phillips will see some work at defensive end, and could be the primary pass rusher opposite Miller when the Broncos go into nickel and dime packages. Rookie defensive end Quanterus Smith could snag a few pass-rushing sacks if his knee finishes healing and he shows that he can transfer his three-sack performance against Alabama last year to the NFL.
Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway noted Tuesday that "65 percent" of the defense's work in 2012 was in situations with at least five defensive backs. If those are situations that call for Phillips and not Ayers, then his sack total will continue to lag, even though he will be a crucial component of the run defense.
"Sacks, they're tough to get. They really are. But I do believe I can be a guy that gets a lot of sacks," Ayers said.
Aside from working as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in nickel and dime packages in 2011, Ayers has never before had that chance on a consistent basis.
"You look at the situations; some players go to situations where sacks aren't a premium. That isn't necessarily a thing that the defense is based around, just getting sacks. For example, my first two years, we had a coach where that wasn't necessarily his main objective," Ayers said. "I was dropping into coverage more than I was rushing the passer. So that's something that could go unnoticed.
"Sacks are about opportunity, it's about working, it's about being in the right place a lot of times and it's about having great talent. I feel like I'm going to work, I feel like I have talent, and I feel like this year, for the first year in my career, I'm going to have an opportunity to be put in a premier position to where I can rush the passer, contrary to the last few years."
But how often Ayers is in that position remains to be seen. The Broncos know Ayers can be stout against the run. But first-round, front-seven players are expected to contribute in the pass rush. How much he does could determine how he'll be remembered in the annals of Broncos draft picks -- and whether he does enough to earn a chance for a second contract with the only NFL team he's known.