This is a season of the "Great Unknown" for Akin Ayodele. It's a season that could have him play three positions, and it's a season that would send him into restricted free agency.
At the exact midway point in this training camp, Ayodele can't know for sure if he's a linebacker or a defensive end, though it would seem he's destined to be both, and he can't even be sure he'll be with the Jaguars come this time next summer.
"To me, it doesn't matter if it's defensive end or linebacker. I love to be on the field. For me, it's a chance to show what I can do," Ayodele said following this morning's practice at the Jaguars' Alltel Stadium practice facility.
On the 13th day of the Jaguars' 26-day training camp – it also happens to be the day of the premier showing of "Inside Training Camp: Jaguars Summer" – Ayodele appears destined for specialty roles at both positions. As it stands today, Ayodele would be a run-downs outside linebacker – either at the weakside or strongside positions – and a hand-on-the-ground defensive end on pass-rush downs.
There it is. Write it in stone, right?
The fact of the matter is nobody can be quite sure of Ayodele's role. For starters, coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith need more information on the players currently attempting to address the team's desperate need at defensive end. Then there's the matter of a five-yard "chuck" rule the league has warned will be a "major point of emphasis" this season.
Yeah, it all makes for the "Great Unknown," but Ayodele is rolling with the punches.
"Coach is going to put the best pass-rushers on the field. If I'm one of them, that would be great. To me, it's not a big deal," Ayodele said.
Three years ago, Ayodele was heading into his senior season at Purdue, where he was one of those light-and-fast defensive ends the college game promotes. The Jaguars drafted him to be a linebacker and he stepped into the starting strongside position immediately. He made the transition fully by the end of the 2002 season.
Last season, Del Rio's rookie season as head coach, Ayodele moved to the weakside spot and established himself there. But this past spring, the Jaguars drafted Daryl Smith in the second round and signed Tommy Hendricks and Greg Favors in free agency, and that trio and Ayodele give the Jaguars impressive depth at the two outside linebacker positions.
Making the picture even more crowded is that Smith and Hendricks have been training camp stars. All indications are they will not be denied a place on the field.
Smith says, promises, the Jaguars will put the best players on the field, and that's very doable because Smith's linebackers are capable of playing so many different positions and offer the potential for so many combinations. Of course, Ayodele is the key man in that maneuvering.
"It's becoming a spread-the-field game," Smith said, referring to the "chuck" rule emphasis so many coaches believe will have a major impact on offensive design and how defenses react to design changes.
Will the "chuck" rule emphasis mean more passing? Will it result in more three-wide receiver and four-wide receiver sets? Will defenses make a move toward lighter, more mobile defensive ends capable of rushing the passer and dropping into pass-coverage?
If "yes" is the answer to those questions, Ayodele could find himself playing a lot of end.
"We're going to put our best pass-rushers on the field in pass-rush situations. Akin has shown he can rush the passer. We weren't able to use him as a pass-rusher last year in 'dime" because we lost Keith Mitchell," Smith said.
Most players want to settle into one position and make it their own, but Ayodele seems to almost invite playing time at end. Why not? After all, it may be what he does best naturally, and, you know, sacks are a good thing to have when you're heading into restricted free agency.
"That's been my tag since coming into the NFL," Ayodele said of being labeled a "tweener," a player too small to be an end but not mobile enough to be a linebacker. "That's why I'm here. They wanted me to be a linebacker who could rush the passer."
Now, the Jaguars may ask Ayodele to be a defensive end who rushes the passer.
"If that's what my role ends up being, I'll accept it and I'll try to be the best defensive end I can be," Ayodele said.