Ayers a first-rounder?

A Tennessee Vol was the biggest surprise of the 2008 National Football League Draft, and history could repeat in 2009.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo, rated a late-first round to early-second round pick by many draft analysts this time last year, wound up going to the Super Bowl runnerup New England Patriots with the 10th overall selection in the '08 draft. Now it appears another Vol defender could be the stunner pick of the '09 draft. Strong showings at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine have Vol defensive end Robert Ayers shooting up NFL Draft boards.

Ayers, a 6-3, 275-pounder from Clio, S.C., was Tennessee's premier underachiever for most of his time on campus. He managed just two starts and 66 tackles in his first four seasons at UT, counting a redshirt year in 2004.

Ayers finally turned potential into production as a fifth-year senior last fall, starting all 12 games in 2008. He led the Vols with 15.5 tackles for loss (five more than the runnerup). He ranked sixth among all UT defenders (first among linemen) with 49 total stops. He registered 3 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries. He intercepted one pass and batted down another one.

In spite of his strong showing last season, Ayers was viewed as a probable mid-round draft pick until his big showing at the Senior Bowl. He reportedly gave elite offensive tackles Andre Smith (Alabama) and Michael Oher (Ole Miss) fits in the South squad's practices, then recorded 1.5 sacks in the contest, earning Defensive Player of the Game recognition.

After displaying his speed and agility at the Combine and at UT's Pro Timing Day, Ayers has become one of the draft's fastest-rising prospects. He gets very high marks from ESPN recruiting analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr.

In his latest mock draft McShay has Ayers going to the Redskins with pick 13 in Round 1. Only two SEC players are projected to go higher – Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1 to the Lions) and Bama's Smith (No. 6 to the Bengals).

Kiper isn't quite as infatuated with Ayers but still gives the ex-Vol high marks. Kiper's latest defensive end rankings have Ayers No. 5 behind Texas' Brian Orakpo, Penn State's Aaron Maybin, LSU's Tyson Jackson and Florida State's Everette Brown – all of whom are projected as probable first-round NFL Draft picks.

Here's what Kiper has to say about Ayers:

"Ayers enjoyed a solid season in the SEC and stood out at the Senior Bowl practices. I thought he'd run about a 4.6-second time in the 40 at the combine workout, but he clocked only a 4.80. If during individual testing he can push that number down closer to what I expected, he'll come off the board between picks No. 20 and No. 32."

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