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As of this publishing, Jay Ajayi appears to be the starting main-carry/workhorse running back for the Miami Dolphins for 2016. Something tells me that statement is not going to be true in about 2–3+ months, but it’s true right now (more on that in a moment).
I wanted to do a study on Ajayi because, today, he seems to be in a prime position to be the lead running back for the Dolphins in 2016, but I’m really not on board with it in my mind/gut. From what I remembered of his 2015 performance, I wasn’t overwhelmed. When he burst onto the scene, after missing the first half of the season with a broken rib, it seemed like he might be a bigger/better running back talent than Lamar Miller. However, after the initial surge (two games) of Ajayi enthusiasm, he faded into the background as Miller re-established his lead RB role.
Here we are in 2016, and the path has been paved for Ajayi…seemingly. The Dolphins let Lamar Miller walk in free agency. They’ve signed no other free agent RB that could be a serious threat to Ajayi. They drafted a frail, but fairly talented third-down type running back in the draft, Kenyan Drake. Basically, it looks like Ajayi is ‘the guy’…
So I went back through all of his touches from 2015, from the preseason games right through his regular season run. I wanted to see if he was deserving of a workhorse-like role, and a high ADP in Fantasy drafts upcoming – and worthy of my FF respect. After watching all of Ajayi’s touches from 2015, I have to say I walked away totally unimpressed. I’m not really sure what’s so ‘special’ here.
My impression, based on my scouting of Ajayi in 2015, was basically that he is a respectable/NFL-worthy running back. Not a ‘bust’, but not a future superstar either. He’s very average/solid.
He has a nice size at 5′11″+/221 pounds, but his athleticism measurables from the NFL Combine were mediocre for speed and agility – a 4.57 40-time and a 7.10 three-cone. Those size and speed numbers get you to the NFL dance, no problem. It just doesn’t make you unique, or a franchise running back (on paper). Sometimes the numbers/measurables lie, but in this case, after watching that 2015 tape, I think the measurables are spot-on. Ajayi is a solid/average prospect, nothing more.
The notes I kept making over and over again, watching all his 2015 touches, was that he was a slow starter off the snap, and that put him at an instant disadvantage trying to negotiate through congestion. He was often too easily halted for short or no/negative gains (24.4% of Ajayi’s carries went for zero or less yards…Gurley 20%, David Johnson 17% as other rookie examples). No one is going to marvel when watching Ajayi run the ball. Occasionally, he gets a nice head of steam through a wide open hole, and has a nice gain. However, in and of his own ability, he doesn’t create opportunities out of thin air. He’s never going to ‘wow’ you by turning a negative into a miraculous positive. He’s a head-down-and-run-until-someone-stops-him style runner – and often that’s for little gain. He’ll go as far as his O-Line takes him. I think over time, Ajayi will be lost in the NFL shuffle – as fans/fantasy GMs will see him as just another warm body running back.
Ajayi entered the NFL with a lot of fanfare about his receiving skills out of the backfield, but I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed watching him in the pass game with Miami in 2015. He can catch the ball OK, but when I watch him catch the ball play after play from preseason to the regular season, I can see he’s not a totally natural receiver of the ball. A few too many double catches. A few too many catching-it-into-his-body moments. He’s OK, but he’s not going to be any radical weapon beyond simple swing and screen passes.
I have no doubt, that if forced all of the touches – Ajayi will produce some decent fantasy numbers in 2016. He’s not a stiff by any means. I just worry that he will get stuck in the mud early, and the momentum/mood will swing against him – and free agent running backs off the street could come in and do what he does…and do it even better.
It’s debatable that Ajayi won’t even make it to opening day as the Dolphins’ lead running back. Miami tried to sign C.J. Anderson in the offseason – they signed him to a contract, but the Broncos matched it. The Dolphins have been dancing on and off with Arian Foster, and I would say Foster is most likely to be a Dolphin come early August. If that happens, Ajayi’s Dynasty-Fantasy value is going to plummet instantly. I think even the Dolphins know they can’t rely upon Ajayi as their workhorse for 2016, or they’re going nowhere fast. However, there is plenty of time to find running back depth as they get released for payroll reasons, or otherwise, in August. A simple trade of a 7th round pick for Knile Davis, etc. might occur – and Miami has been rumored in talks with KC on a Davis deal.
In addition to the talent questions, you also have the fact/rumors of Ajayi’s knee problems. Initially, Ajayi had the hype of a top 50 NFL Draft pick in 2015. However, details and rumor emerged about a knee issue so scary that supposedly took him off the draft board of many NFL teams. He ultimately fell from a top 50 projected draft pick…to a guy picked right before #150. It’s potentially only a matter of time before Ajayi has to have a microfracture surgery. To some degree, he’s a ticking time bomb… Not only because of the knee, but because of a possible Arian Foster signing, or just a flop at the beginning of the season.
If Ajayi is the opening day starter, the schedule is going to do him no favors – @ SEA, @ NE the first two weeks of the season. CIN-PIT-BUF-NYJ are four of the next six opponents after that – all project to be quality run defenses. I look at all these negative factors on Ajayi, and I just don’t see how Miami can bet its 2016 backfield on him. I don’t think they will in the end. However, if they do – you just have to know you’re looking at a very plain Jane/average talent, who’s going to go as far for Fantasy as the circumstances allow him. He’s not going to be a difference-making Pro Bowl running back for his team. He’s just going to be a nice warm body like a C.J. Anderson or Alfred Morris or Jeremy Hill, or whoever else you want to put in there – guys who have moments/spurts in the right situation, but are eventually exposed as mediocre talents…guys who are white hot in Fantasy for a stretch, and then are given away in deals soon after, or a year later.
I would be very, very wary of counting on Ajayi for opening day 2016, or even if the season unfolds with him as the true starter. There is a lot not to like here going forward, and looking back over his 2015 did not put my mind at ease about any of that.
*Our Dynasty Rookie Draft (+IDP) top-100+ prospects with thousands of words of commentary and draft strategy discussion is now posted at College Football Metrics.com. We’ll post 10-15+ versions of our Dynasty Rookie Draft rankings throughout the preseason, as well as adding in a few of the bigger names from 2017 for a preview into the future.