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Local players could be NFL first-round picks

UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers needs to have a faster 40 time, while USC tackle Tyron Smith has already impressed teams with his weight at combine.

March 29, 2011|By Sam Farmer
  • Former UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is a potential first-round NFL draft selection.
Former UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is a potential first-round NFL draft… (John Rieger / US Presswire )

The long and the short of NFL draft preparation for UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers is, more appropriately, the short and the long of it.

Unless he does very well in the short term — dazzling NFL scouts Tuesday at UCLA's pro day — he will have an uncomfortably long wait in next month's draft.

Ayers risks slipping out of the first round unless he puts up much better numbers than he did in February at the scouting combine, when he chugged through the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, redefining the term "speed rusher."

"Being the competitor that I am, I wasn't happy with that," Ayers said in phone interview. "I'm an athletic player, and I'm capable of putting up great numbers. It was just one of those days where things didn't go my way, but it will just make me push harder for pro day."

Across town, when USC stages its pro day Wednesday, Trojans right tackle Tyron Smith needs to build on what he already established at the combine in Indianapolis. He weighed in at a solid 307 pounds, allaying the concerns of some teams that he'd be too light to play tackle in the pros. At his lightest last season, he was 285.

"I surprised myself," Smith said of his weight gain, which, paradoxically, he credits to cutting back on junk food.

Smith is potentially a top-10 pick, and many scouts think he can make the rare transition from right tackle in college to left tackle in the NFL. A far more traditional switch for a young player is from the left side in college to the right, because playing left tackle in the pros is among the most difficult challenges in the game.

It's entirely possible that UCLA and USC could have first-round picks this year. That has happened only once since 1996. In 2006, USC's Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart went in the first, as did UCLA's Marcedes Lewis. USC's Chris Claiborne and UCLA's Cade McNown were opening-round selections in 1999.

As it stands, Smith is likely to be chosen before Ayers, who had a very good season but is also part of a draft class filled with capable pass rushers.

USC Coach Lane Kiffin called Smith "a phenomenal, rare athlete for his size" and someone who "would do well in all areas of the testing."

Early indications are that NFL teams are not likely to look askance at Smith not playing left tackle at USC. He locked down the right side, whereas Charles Brown, a second-round pick by New Orleans last year, was the fixture on the left. At the combine, Smith said he feels most comfortable on the left side.

For Ayers to find his comfort zone in the draft, he must improve on his 40-yard time. An NFL scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to comment on behalf of his franchise, said Ayers needs to run in the 4.6-second range to erase the disappointment of the combine.

"The testing numbers don't show the athlete that we see on tape," the scout said. "That's a little bit of a red flag, but still the tape speaks for itself. The kid is a pretty good pass rusher, very raw from a technique standpoint, and he could go in the back half of the first round."

The scout added, however, that if Ayers doesn't show improvement in his testing Tuesday, he could slip all the way to the mid- to late second round.

UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, a former Baltimore Ravens assistant coach, said — regardless of the numbers from the combine — Ayers is well-suited to make a smooth transition to the pros.

"Having coached at that level, and having seen what Akeem can do and the kind of plays that he makes that you can't coach, I see him as a bona fide first-round guy," Neuheisel said.

Something that makes Ayers stand out, Neuheisel said, is his prowess is more evident on pass plays than run plays, which isn't typically the case with college linebackers.

"Linebackers are usually the tough, aggressive great tacklers who fill the gaps," he said. "But Akeem is as gifted a pass dropper and pass rusher for an outside linebacker as I can remember. With the NFL being probably 60% passing, that's a huge thing."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

Times staff writers Gary Klein and Chris Foster contributed to this report.

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