With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at how heavy of a workload the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting running back will handle.
The Eagles didn’t need Jay Ajayi in 2017. He worked alongside LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement in a productive three-headed committee that eventually won the Super Bowl. Now that Blount has taken his talents to Detroit, Ajayi figures to again work in a three-part committee also featuring Clement and Darren Sproles. Still, plenty of Blount’s fantasy-friendly opportunities will be up for grabs, and Ajayi has proven capable of returning top-tier fantasy value before.
The Upside Factor
Ajayi has routinely provided the types of electrifying performances that can leave any potential fantasy investor salivating for more:
- He joins Earl Campbell, Tiki Barber, and O.J. Simpson as the only running backs to ever rush for over 200 yards in at least three games in a single season.
- He joins Mark Ingram, Isaiah Crowell, and Todd Gurley as the only backs with six-plus runs of 40-plus yards since 2015.
- Only Dion Lewis, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Marshawn Lynch have have a better missed tackle rate per carry since 2015 (Pro Football Focus).
Specializing in producing enormous games, long runs, and broken tackles is nirvana for fans of running backs, though that style doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Ajayi hasn’t been as consistent as most people — including his old head coach, Adam Gase — would like to see. Per our NFL trends tool, Ajayi has surpassed his salary-based expectation in just 41% and 29% of his games on DraftKings and FanDuel, respectively, since entering the league.
Life Without Blount
The reason for optimism about Ajayi becoming more consistent has everything to do with the aforementioned departure of one of the league’s top touchdown scorers. Blount was one of just nine backs with double-digit carries inside the 5-yard line last season (and was the only player among that group to not score multiple touchdowns). This role, along with plenty of early-down work between the 20s, helped result in Blount playing a position-high 31.3% of snaps last season.
Meanwhile, Ajayi didn’t receive a single carry inside the 5 in 2017. That wasn’t exactly his fault; the Dolphins’ anemic offense seldom found their way into the red zone, and the Eagles already had Blount.
It’s surprising the Eagles didn’t at least try to get Ajayi a touch or two near the goal line after he proved to be plenty qualified for that role in 2016.
Jay Ajayi didn't have any rushes inside the 5-yard line in 2017 …
… but converted 5/9 (56%) goal line rushes into TDs in 2015-2016.
League average 2015-2017: 44% pic.twitter.com/NpgLUYL8Ck
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 18, 2018
Clement is similar to Ajayi in size and managed to convert two of his four goal-line attempts into touchdowns last season. Even if Clement remains somewhat involved in the red zone, Ajayi figures to engulf at least a solid portion of Blount’s short-yardage work considering the other options on the depth chart.
Running Back By Committee
While Ajayi has racked up 51 receptions over the past two seasons, he won’t be confused with the likes of Jerick McKinnon or Dion Lewis anytime soon. Luckily for the Eagles, they possess several backs that are competent receivers. Still, there isn’t a threat to the team’s goal-line or early-down work on the level of Blount.
- Darren Sproles is now 35 years old and has never possessed the size to work as a consistent red-zone option
- Donnell Pumphrey missed all of last season with a torn hamstring and has the same size concerns that Sproles does.
- Wendall Smallwood was a healthy scratch for all but one of Ajayi’s 10 total games with the Eagles.
- The undrafted Clement’s Elusive Rating (PFF) as a rookie is well below Ajayi’s career-low mark.
- Matt Jones is the team’s largest back, but has battled injuries and inefficiency while playing just 12 games since 2015.
Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley believes Ajayi will become the Eagles’ first back with 200-plus carries since LeSean McCoy in 2014. Early reports from OTAs are promising, as Ajayi has spoken of grasping the entirety of the Eagles playbook, and head coach Doug Pederson said, “He’s definitely going into camp as the No. 1 guy.”
Ajayi averaged 13.8 carries and 2.5 targets per game over the last six games of 2017. While he may never record 20-plus touches a game due to knee issues that contributed to his fifth-round fall in the 2015 NFL Draft, his average draft position in PPR leagues at the time of this writing leaves him as the RB22. Ajayi’s lack of opportunities and midseason trade resulted in a disappointing RB36 finish just a year after finishing up as the league’s RB11, but he’s set up for a significantly more fantasy-friendly role in 2018 on one of the league’s best offenses.
Pictured above: Jay Ajayi
Photo credit: John David Mercer – USA TODAY Sports