The Jay Ajayi Trade, From a Serial Ajayi Starter
Hi my name is Matt, and I’ve been a Jay Ajayi owner since September 2016.
2016 was a tough year. TV news was hard to watch, David Bowie died, and the Zero-RB draft strategy was in full swing. That year I joined a startup keeper league in its second year, inheriting a forgotten team just as everyone was selecting their keepers. The pickings were slim, but there was one flier I was willing to take: this Jay Ajayi kid, who had been stashed by the previous owner at the end of 2015, now backing up the notoriously fragile Arian Foster. I signed him for a few bucks, and while we had our adds and drops those first weeks, it wasn’t long before he became an every week starter.
It helped that my drafted starters, Danny Woodhead and Ameer Abdullah, played a combined four games. Zero-RB was a dark time for some of us.
Following last season, I re-signed Ajayi for an additional two years. I had him all of last season, and will likely have him all of next as well. So a development like this morning’s news, sending him to Philadelphia, carries a lot of weight with me. While Ajayi certainly carries some baggage, and I’ll get into that, I believe this trade is an overall improvement for Ajayi.
What happened since last season?
It’s clear to everyone that Ajayi is a shadow of his former self this year. Using Pro Football Focus’ analysis, Ajayi was top-3 in elusiveness, forced the most missed tackles, and was second in yards after contact. This season he has been entirely pedestrian in those categories, and it’s absolutely the difference maker — because his offensive line is still terrible. This is similar to what we saw with Todd Gurley last year: he was simply unable to keep producing despite everything around him working against him.
Take a look at these offensive line rankings from Football Outsiders — this is one of my favorite tools out there. Miami’s o-line has actually regressed from last season, from 22nd to 28th ranked. They are allowing running backs to be stuffed at or behind the line and astounding 28% of the time, and these rankings do not include this latest game, where Ajayi carried the ball 12 times for 2 yards. He was tackled at or behind the line for half of his carries.
Where does that leave him in Philly?
It leaves him on a much better offense, with a slightly better offensive line. It also means he’s not the only show in town anymore. Credit has to be given to LeGarrette Blount, who has performed much better as a starter than many anticipated. Averaging 4.7 yards per attempt behind only the 21st ranked line, the Philly running backs are also 10th in second level yards and 7th in open field yards, meaning what they do past the line of scrimmage is having the most impact.
The move to the Eagles puts Ajayi in a position to emulate his 2016 strengths while facing less pressure up front, thanks to a much improved passer in Carson Wentz and two deep-threat receivers. The big concern owners have is how much of the workload he will actually see while competing with Blount and Smallwood.
I personally don’t expect Wendell Smallwood to have a big role moving forward. He has had an underwhelming two seasons in the NFL, and while some have guessed he might take passing down work, Ajayi’s increased usage in the passing game, particularly the last two weeks, seems to suggest that isn’t necessary. Even Sean Payton and the Saints have figured out playing three running backs with overlapping skills doesn’t make sense.
But as I said above Blount has been rather successful as the starter, and therein lies the competition. It’s easy to assume Blount will primarily take goal-line work, which would cap Ajayi’s ceiling by taking away valuable touchdowns. Getting all the early down work with more room to run would open up Ajayi’s potential for big plays once again. That’s the best case scenario. The worst is if Ajayi continues to struggle, and the backfield morphs into an outright split. If he only gets 10 carries per game with no goal line work, he’s still barely a flex option. But it doesn’t get much worse than his current situation.
What about next year?
Here’s where Philadelphia really got away with something — or walked right into a trap. Blount’s 1-year, $1,250,000 contract will end in 2018 and after two solid seasons he’d be right to seek better pay. But Ajayi will only be on the books for $760,000 next year, meaning they could have improved on Blount for cheaper. If he does well the rest of the season, he will be the locked and loaded starter for next year with less competition.
For the Dolphins to have given up on him, and for so little, raises some questions, particularly about the health of his knees. Much like in real life, Ajayi makes an intriguing keeper to target, especially with his cost is at its lowest. But be careful of over-investing, because risk is lurking there.