When DeMarcus Ayers had what he called “a high and low ankle sprain” during the second week of his inaugural NFL training camp, the Steelers could have placed him on season-ending injured reserve.
Worst yet, the team could have released him via an injury settlement.
But, in a sign both of the faith the team had in him and in the rookie’s perseverance, Ayers toughed it out throughout the preseason, was placed on the practice squad and – slowly throughout the past three months – gradually worked himself back to full health.
Is he, at long last, about to be rewarded for it?
“Hopefully, I’m active this week and I get the opportunity to go out there,” Ayers said after Wednesday’s practice. “Whether it’s blocking or returning punts, whatever they need me to do, I’ll be up to the task.”
As colleague Joe Rutter reported, Ayers has been getting reps in practice with the first-team offense this week and has been told by coaches to prepare for a promotion to the 53-man roster. Wednesday, Ayers was in star Antonio Brown’s usual (split end) spot. But on days in which Brown was not being given a “Veteran’s Day Off ,” Ayers had been practicing mostly at the other two WR spots – at least, when he wasn’t on scout team, which was most of the time.
Of the five wide receivers on the Steelers’ 53-man roster at the moment, one is out with an injury for what appears to be (at very least) a few more weeks (Darrius Heyward-Bey, who’s still getting around gingerly) and another might not get back to 100 percent health all season (Sammie Coates and his broken fingers). That leaves just Brown, first-year Eli Rogers and journeyman Cobi Hamilton at wideout.
Ayers (5-9, 182), who was extremely productive in college at Houston (98 catches for 1,222 yards last season), might be on the verge of getting his shot.
“In the meetings all year, they have just been telling me, ‘Hey we will need you at some point,’” Ayers said. “I have been growing every week and it’s been impressive to see and I actually feel good about getting better, and just keep getting better.
“And to get a chance to go with Ben helps me understand how he goes through his calls on the field and in game situations. The pace is also good for me, so when I get out there practice will be much harder than the game. So it’s good to get good feedback from him and all the other guys.”
Where Ayers’ immediate impact could potentially be most felt perhaps is as a returner. He was a two-time All-AAC return man. Ayers said he has been returning punts in practice recently, and he’s been part of kickoff return teams with the Steelers in practice too.
But it wasn’t until this week that Ayers was given work on offense commensurate with a player who has the apparent look of one who could make his NFL regular-season debut. “A great feeling,” Ayers said.
“These guys are starting to trust me, and I’m learning the playbook more and more and starting to get a lot of reps now. So whenever my number is called I will be ready.”
We probably won’t find out Ayers is promoted until Saturday afternoon. To make room, maybe Heyward-Bey goes to IR, maybe RB Daryl Richardson or CB Al-Hajj Shabazz is sent back down to the practice squad, maybe L.J. Fort is released. Ayers insists, if a move is made, he won’t know until after the final practice of the week at the earliest.
“Normally, the way they do stuff around here we find out later in the week,” Ayers said. “But it’s always a good sign when you’re running with the ‘1’s,’ because a lot of the guys who have stepped into those roles throughout their week have normally got rewarded. It’s kind of like an interview to see if you’re prepared for the week, and then Saturday when we come in … we’re kind of told what’s going on.”
The Sunday roster must be set by 4 p.m. Saturday.