When Demarcus Ayers was drafted out of Houston in the 7th round of this year's NFL Draft. Most fans responded by asking "who's that?" followed by "Holy Cow he's slow for such a little guy," followed by "another wasted pick by Todd Haley looking for the next Dexter McCluster." This was basically my thought process as well, but as I've looked at him, I'm convinced this is not at all the case. Ayers is indeed the latest example of a trend in Steelers picks somewhat oddly focusing on a specific kind of player on offense, but it's not Chris Rainey and Dri Archer's footsteps he's following in.
I believe that Ayers was actually chosen to fit the Sanders/Brown/Wheaton/Rogers mold the team is emphasizing, not the McCluster/Rainey/Archer mold. Let's look first at the measurables:
4.57 second 40 yard dash
6.71 second 3-cone drill
41 inch vertical jump
Small, not fast but explosive. This isn't Ayers; it's last year's UDFA Eli Rogers.
Markus Wheaton is another similar player, a little bigger and faster at 5'11, 189, with a 4.45 forty, but he's not the size/speed freak that Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates are, and has the quickness and explosiveness with a 4.08 second short shuttle, 6.8 second 3-cone drill, and 37 inch vertical (also posted an impressive 20 reps on the bench).
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were the original mighty mice drafted in the 3rd and 6th rounds back in 2010. Brown, you may recall, also had fairly average 4.48 speed in the 40-yard dash, but a reputation for quickness borne out by a sub-7 second 3 cone drill. Like Wheaton, Sanders boasted better long speed (4.41 over 40 yards), but his calling card was still explosiveness with a 6.6 second 3 cone drill and 39.5 inch vertical, and he was viewed as limited by his 5'11, 186 pound frame.
All these players were college playmakers whose primary skill was quick feet that made them elusive and dynamic offensive threats. All of them except Wheaton were accomplished punt returners. And this is the group Ayers should really be compared to rather than Archer and Rainey.
There are some key incongruities between Ayers and Archer/Rainey. For one, Archer and Rainey were both known for their elite long speed (although Rainey also displayed great agility at times), while Ayers' game is about maneuverability more than speed. Archer and Rainey were primarily kick returners who were tried as punt returners but weren't very good at it. Ayers was an excellent kick returner as a freshman, but saw his average plummet to 17 yards per return as a sophomore and was converted to a punt returner.
Most significantly, Archer and Rainey were RB's and Ayers is a WR. Ayers has experience at RB from high school, but in college only rushed 28 times compared to 141 receptions. Dri Archer was used as a WR some in college, but had the same number of receptions over his 4 years as Ayers had just as a Jr. Ayers is also listed on the Steelers website as a WR, while Rainey and Archer were included as RB's.
I think it's pretty clear Ayers is the next Eli Rogers, not the next Dri Archer. The only thing that would suggest the contrary is that the team parted ways with Archer last year, making space for a fresh attempt to fill that role, while Rogers is still on the roster. That will lead to an interesting competition between Rogers and Ayers, but Colbert isn't afraid of that kind of redundancy and has actually been there before with Sanders and Brown. If he'd spend a 5th and 6th on similar players, there's no reason to believe he wouldn't use a 7th and an UDFA.
As for who will win the competition, we'll have to see. Rogers has the advantage this year of greater experience in the system, and was supposed to have had a great camp before injury derailed those plans. Ayers has a very limited route tree and will need some time to develop his route running. That could indicate that Rogers has the edge this year, but Ayers is the more experienced and productive return man and that will work heavily in his favor as whoever wins the job will hopefully see the field more as a returner than a WR.
In the long term, Ayers may be the more exciting prospect based on their comparative production in college. Rogers was a model of consistency ranging between 41-46 receptions and 455-536 yards with 1-4 TD's each of his 4 years in college. In fairness, he may have been held back some by having Devante Parker, who would eventually become the 14th overall draft pick by the Dolphins, competing for targets, but the virtually static level of production is nevertheless striking. In contrast, Ayers tripled his receptions each year in college from 11 to 33 to 97 as a Jr., and his growth curve may indicate he's just scratching the surface of his potential.
However it works out, I feel a lot better about the Ayers pick comparing him to our other receivers rather than Chris Rainey or Dri Archer, and it will be interesting to see how the, um, "Cheap Money?" receivers, Rogers and Ayers, pan out.