TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Robert Ayers had one word to describe where he thought the Bucs' defensive line was last spring: "Terrible." He also has a method for testing rookies and unproven players this time of year, and he doesn't care if it rubs people the wrong way.
"I believe in weeding out the weak," Ayers said. "If we've got somebody that's soft, I want to weed him out."
It's this no-nonsense, brutally honest approach from Ayers that is helping transform the identity of the Bucs' defensive line. It's a unit that has struggled with pressuring the quarterback the last several years. Ayers has given them nastiness and some teeth, even if an ankle injury prevented him from making a full impact last season.
"He’s been very influential in bringing a toughness to our defense, and that’s very important," said defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who also raved about Ayers' position versatility, being able to line up as a defensive tackle and rush from the inside in the Bucs' sub-packages. "We’ve got to continue to work on our toughness and our resiliency.”
Ask anyone along the defensive line and they'll tell you that Ayers is a driving force in that unit. Ayers was coaching up William Gholston while he was sidelined last year, with Gholston turning in his best season as a pro and earning himself a new contract. He did the same with Noah Spence, who played through a torn labrum since Week 4 and did not miss a game.
Ayers was pushing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, telling him in the fourth quarter of games, "'Take over, Gerald. Take over. Nobody out here can block you,'" Ayers said. "I tell him all the time, 'I can't do what you do. As much as I believe I'm an alpha male, I can't do what you do. You've got to be the one to take that to the next level.'"
Ayers said he might have given franchise quarterback Jameis Winston an earful for head-butting Dallas Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant. "I was going, 'You're stupid,'" Ayers said. "It hurt us, so we were mad."
Even with all the pep talks -- infused with his thick New Jersey accent and a few curse words for good measure -- and even with the 6.5 sacks he contributed in 12 games, which were second-most on the team, Ayers doesn't see himself as the one leading the charge.
"I don't really look at it as me being a leader," Ayers said. "I personally view myself as a guy that, I go hard, and my goals are just high.
"I don't believe in settling. The idea of another man being better than me at anything has always been something that I hate. The idea of another team thinking that they're better than us is just something that I hate. I really hate to lose."
There's a reason the Bucs were 6-0 last year in games where Ayers recorded a sack. Four of his sacks came during the Bucs' five-game win streak, a feat they hadn't accomplished since 2002. Their 9-7 mark gave them their first winning season since 2010.
That's what Ayers believes he has brought to Tampa -- a "winning" mentality and passion. Since Dirk Koetter took over as head coach last year, "compete" has been the team's motto. Ayers has helped drive that message home, which is why the Bucs signed him to a three-year, $19.5 million contract last offseason.
"I think we just needed to create an environment of winning, an environment of competing and challenging each other, pushing each other," Ayers said. "I'm not afraid to say anything to anybody, no matter the stature is or what their level of accomplishments are, or even a coach.
"I'm not afraid for you not to like me. I don't really care about being liked. I don't really care about opinions of me. I just want to win. So I think we kind of challenged each other and pushed each other to change things around here."