Robert Ayers, Linebacker
THE defensive player the Broncos could least afford to lose sustained a potentially season-ending tear of his pectoral muscle in the first week of training camp. Denver is hoping that outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who led the league in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 43 in his first four seasons, can return late in the year. In the meantime all eyes will be on Robert Ayers, the second of the Broncos' two first-round draft picks last year.
Ayers was a nonfactor in 2009. He started only one game, finished with just 19 tackles and failed to register a sack despite playing mostly on passing downs. And he raised eyebrows in the off-season when he was benched for the first two days of full-squad minicamp because of a "coaching decision."
Ayers, 24, appears to have matured since then. The 6' 3", 274-pound former Tennessee Volunteer showed flashes of fulfilling his potential in training camp and even broke through for a half sack—his first as a pro—in the second preseason game, at Detroit. He's projected to be an every-down player this year, and he'll have to make his presence felt if the Broncos are to challenge for the AFC West title. No one on the 2010 roster outside of Dumervil had more than four sacks last season. If Ayers doesn't step up, Denver will have to take more risks to get to the quarterback, and that could create more big-play opportunities for opponents.