Will Jay Ajayi be a top 10 back?



Jay Ajayi helped some people win leagues with a trio of 200-yard performances in 2016.
We’re in the dog days of summer, but the prospect of football — and more importantly, fantasy football — looms large. Now’s the time of year when folks start planning for drafts, making trades in dynasty and sketching their ideal championship trophy location. But it’s also a time to pause, do a little homework, and try to figure out what to expect from some of the big names in drafts.

As part of our continuing effort to help get your ready for the 2017 season, I’m turning my gaze today to Jay Ajayi, the little running back that could in Miami. He had some monster games, a great 2016 season and seems to be in everyone’s top 10 rankings. But is that a fair projection? Let’s dig a little deeper.

If you search for a picture of Ajayi from his collegiate days at Boise State, you get one of two things. The first are action shots of him on the gridiron. The second are pictures of him drinking from a pickle jar. While the latter might be concerning, the former is what filled fantasy football fans and Miami Dolphins scouts with glee heading into the 2015 season.

Ajayi was a workhorse back for the Broncos in college, despite his 6'0", 220-pound frame. In 2013, he turned 249 carries into 1,429 yards and 18 touchdowns, adding 22 receptions for 222 yards and another TD. In 2014, he was even better. Ajayi carried 347 times for 1,823 yards and 28 touchdowns, adding 50 receptions for 535 yards and four touchdowns.

That earned Ajayi a fifth round pick by the Dolphins, and plenty of pre-season hype. Unfortunately, his pro career got derailed before it could get started. On September 6, 2015, Ajayi went on IR designated to return after suffering broken ribs in the team’s final exhibition game. While Lamar Miller was the Dolphins’ workhorse, Ajayi didn’t make his first appearance until a November game with the Buffalo Bills.

His rookie season was limited. He carried 49 times for 187 yards and caught seven passes for 90 yards. And that season did little to answer questions about whether he could carry the load or be a dynamic feature back in the NFL.

Prior to the 2016 season, the Dolphins turned their head coaching job over to offensive guru Adam Gase. In his previous three seasons, Gase led successful offenses in Denver and Chicago, and he set about looking to get the Dolphins to a better level coming in. While Gase is renowned for his work in the passing game, his three seasons as OC prior to 2016 showed that he does wonders for the rushing game, too.

His work in 2013 with the Broncos was historic. Sure, Peyton Manning tossing 55 touchdown passes will do wonders. But what’s often overlooked is the strong ground game. Knowshon Moreno was the primary back, rushing for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns on 241 carries. Moreno was also key to the passing game, grabbing 60 passes for 548 yards and three more touchdowns. As a team, the Broncos employed three primary rushers (Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman) who combined for 416 carries, 1,815 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing, contributing 92 receptions for 812 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers are no doubt inflated thanks the prolific nature of the offense in total, but Gase teams have always been strong on the ground.

In 2014, the Broncos saw a greatly diminished Peyton Manning, and had a three-way split in the backfield. Moreno had moved on, but Ball, Hillman and CJ Anderson carried the load. The leader was Anderson, who in a second-half breakout (starting the last seven games) amassed 849 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground in 179 carries, adding 34 receptions for 324 yards and two touchdowns. A total of four primary ball carriers (Juwan Thompson had a role, too) combined for 1,727 yards and 15 touchdowns on 394 carries for Denver, adding 68 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns.

An argument could be made that any offense that included Manning, no matter his condition, was going to be one where everyone thrived. The same has never been said of Jay Cutler, yet in Gase’s lone season in Chicago in 2015, he got good production out of his backs. Matt Forte was limited to 13 games due to injury, but rushed for 898 yards and four touchdowns on 218 carries. He added 44 receptions for 389 yards and three touchdowns. While those are modest totals, as a team the Bears added 1,594 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 409 carries with Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey adding to the group. That trio also combined for 69 receptions for 687 yards and five touchdowns.

After a rookie season that saw little work and time missed due to injury, the Dolphins seemed to give Ajayi a vote of confidence by letting Miller leave for the Houston Texans in free agency. Almost just as quickly, they showed that Gase wasn’t sold by signing Anderson to a large offer sheet.

The Broncos matched, and Anderson stayed in Denver. But the Dolphins didn’t stand pat. Instead, Miami signed Arian Foster to a free agent deal, and he almost immediately ascended to the top of the depth chart. Things even got so tenuous for Ajayi that for the season opener in Seattle, he was left at home.

But it quickly became clear Foster wasn’t the answer. Foster played in four games for the Dolphins, starting two, and rushing 22 times for 55 yards while catching six passes for 78 yards. When he abruptly retired, Ajayi was once again the best option left standing in Miami.

It’s not like he got off to a hot start, either. After missing the first game completely, Ajayi amassed just 31 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown in weeks two through five. But in week six, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, something changed. Ajayi got 25 carries and turned it into 204 yards and two touchdowns in a Dolphins’ victory.

The following week against Buffalo, Ajayi carried 28 times for 214 yards and a touchdown. Following a week eight bye, Ajayi carried 24 times for 111 yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets, and his legend was born. Ajayi added a third 200 yard game in 2016 — in week 16 against the Buffalo Bills again — as the Dolphins ran to a 10–6 finish and qualified for the playoffs.

Ajayi ended up rushing for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns, adding 27 receptions for 151 yards. It was good enough for him to finish 11 in ESPN standard scoring, and left many excited to see what he would do for an encore. As a team, the 2016 Dolphins used four runners to amass 1,621 yards and 13 touchdowns on 350 carries, adding 65 receptions for 524 yards and three touchdowns.

It’s easy to look at the cumulative stats for Ajayi, who started just 12 games, and forecast big things in 2017. The projections from Mike Clay have Ajayi going for 1,272 yards on 288 carries and adding eight touchdowns, while catching 30 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. ESPN also has Ajayi ranked ninth among running backs and 18 overall in PPR for the 2017 season.

Many are bullish on Ajayi this season. He seemed to grow into the job, and those three 200-yard games show his potential and talent. That’s largely why his current ADP is that of RB7, going 18 overall, a figure I expect will rise as we move through summer and casual Fantasy Football players begin drafting. But if you draft Ajayi in that spot, you’re depending on him to be your strong RB1, and a week-to-week anchor of your team. And while he finished a low-end RB1 (assuming 12 team leagues) in 2016, he was hardly consistent or dependable.

Ajayi was the ultimate boom-bust RB. Trust me, as someone who owned him and Le’Veon Bell in a league, that fateful day in October was magical. But aside from his three 200-yard games, Ajayi produced just one 100-yard game (week eight against the Jets). Those three games also accounted for five of his eight touchdowns. Those were weeks where Ajayi could help you win, or win it for you. And one of those came during championship week (week 16 of the NFL season).

But four weeks does not a fantasy season make. In PPR scoring, Ajayi had five other double-digit scoring weeks (one of those being Week 17), but those numbers get even tougher in standard, where he had just two additional weeks with double-digit scoring (six total). He also had seven weeks scoring in the single digits (including the first five weeks) in PPR, four weeks with five or less points. Those are potentially crippling stats for someone who is being drafted as an RB1 in the top 20 of drafts. And it’s a reason for caution heading into the 2017.

If you’re a glass half full person, you see a few signs of optimism for Ajayi in 2017. He showed flashes of brilliance and, in all fairness, wasn’t really THE guy until week six. Miami is also a team that appears to be trending in the right direction under Gase. And in his past four years as OC or head coach, Gase teams have had at least 65 receptions by running backs. Ajayi — who caught 50 balls his last year at Boise State — has the skills to be a bigger part of the passing game, which could help his numbers. He also appears to have a lack of competition for touches, unless you’re a big believer in Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams

If you’re a glass half empty person, you see a few red flags. Ajayi was boom-or-bust in 2016, and largely rose to an RB11 finish thanks to 200-yard games that aren’t sustainable, especially considering two of those came against the same division rival. Another red flag is that, over that same past four years looking at Gase, while his teams have produced a minimum of 350 carries and 1,600 rushing yards, Ajayi’s 2016 output was by far the biggest share from any single leading back. While injuries played somewhat of a factor in previous Gase offenses, it’s clear he likes to use three to four backs to carry the load.

I like Ajayi, and his 2016 performance and 2017 potential is impossible to ignore. I also like Gase and the potential of the Miami offense. But I won’t own Ajayi on any of my teams in re-draft this season (I fortunately already have him in one dynasty). Ajayi could very well hit his 2017 ESPN projection (1,272 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 30 receptions, 224 receiving yards and another touchdown). That could very well leave him in RB9 to RB12 territory, where he was last year. That would seem to indicate him living up to his promise, and if you’re simply looking at cumulative numbers you’d be right.

But as the great Matthew Berry always says, “we play a weekly game.” Ajayi’s 2016 season showed great heights, but a lack of consistency. If I’m going to draft a player in the first or second round, that’s someone I’m depending on to help carry me all season, not put me over-the-top four or five weeks a year. That makes Ajayi’s ADP (which, again, I predict will rise) too rich for my blood. Unlike teammate Julius Thomas, who I thought could have a bounce back season and is a draft day steal, Ajayi commands a king’s ransom. Based on his small sample size and the past four years of Gase offenses, I don’t have that kind of confidence week-to-week.

If I could get him as my RB2, I’d be thrilled. But given his draft stock, that doesn’t seem possible. I’d rather let someone else take the risk than bet the top of my draft on the unknown.

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