It’s safe to assume that Jay Ajayi wasn’t among those who thought the Eagles hadn’t done enough to upgrade their running backs during free agency and the draft.
Darren Sproles was retained, free agent Matt Jones was signed, and undrafted rookie Josh Adams was brought aboard, but the Eagles didn’t add an obvious replacement for the departed LeGarrette Blount or obvious competition at the top of the depth chart.
The lead job is Ajayi’s for the taking, and while the same can’t be said beyond this season, the 24-year-old running back welcomes the opportunity to once again become a workhorse.
“Obviously, things have gotten a little shaken up in our room,” Ajayi said, acknowledging the loss of Blount, who signed with the Lions. “I’m excited to get into that lead role, do what’s needed of me and just go bull. It was kind of a year and a half removed from being ‘the guy.’
“So I’m excited to kind of get back in that role and showcase again to the world what I can do.”
Ajayi was “the guy” with the Dolphins for about a year and a half, but he was dealt before the trade deadline last Oct. 31. Only hours after the exchange — the Eagles parted with a fourth-round draft pick — the Miami Herald reported that Ajayi was jettisoned because of “team culture, locker room chemistry and player buy-in.”
While some viewed the report as only the Dolphins’ attempt to justify dealing away a 1,000-yard rusher, three independent sources familiar with Miami’s locker room dynamic confirmed that Ajayi openly complained about the number of touches he would receive — even after victories — in the weeks before the trade.
He got nowhere near the same amount of touches in Philadelphia, but Ajayi had joined a successful team with a locker room full of unselfish players that wouldn’t have tolerated malcontents. The Eagles also kept winning and Ajayi was productive despite sharing the load with Blount and Corey Clement.
His touches increased late in the season and through the postseason — without nary a public grouse from Blount — but 2018 offers Ajayi the chance to become the definitive No. 1. Eagles coach Doug Pederson has said that he favors a by-committee approach, but with Ajayi playing in the last year of his rookie contract, the stars could be aligned for the fourth-year tailback.
“Obviously, you understand what the stakes are going into this season,” Ajayi said of his contract situation. “I’m not going to let it affect the way I carry out my business. Obviously, yeah, I understand that is something that will come to a crossroads at some point, whether it’s during the season or at the end of the year.”
The Eagles, of course, would be the only team that could extend Ajayi during the season, but it would be uncharacteristic for a team that has increasingly devalued running backs. It’s fair to question whether they would even bring him back for another contract, especially if he puts up eye-popping numbers.
But the Eagles have Ajayi at only a $1.907 million salary cap number for this season and they may ride him into the sunset.
“I would like to consider myself a workhorse running back, a grinder,” Ajayi said Tuesday after spring practice. “I believe it’s tough for a defense to go against me for four quarters of just getting me running out of attack and just pounding, pounding.”
The sample isn’t large, but when Ajayi has had 25 or more carries in a game, he has averaged 5.7 yards per rush. In seven games, he has eclipsed 100 yards six times and 200 yards three times. By comparison, when he has had in between 12 to 23 carries, he has averaged 3.4 yards and when he has had in between 1-11 he has averaged 4.6 yards.
Ajayi has decent size (6-foot, 223 pounds), but it’s his relentless north-to-south running style that makes it difficult to bring him down at first crack. Last season, he averaged 3.57 yards beyond the point of being helped by his blockers, per Pro Football Focus, which ranked third in the NFL. In 2016, he averaged a third-best 3.46 yards.
In Miami, Ajayi was given the occasional practice day off to rest a right knee that some teams viewed as potentially chronic before the 2015 draft — hence his fall into the fifth round. He has said the knee is fine, but the concern exists.
Still, when asked earlier this month which players returned for spring workouts in impressive physical shape, Pederson mentioned Ajayi first. The England-born, Texas-raised running back said that he hired a personal chef and has been eating healthier.
A full offseason with the Eagles, in theory, should also benefit Ajayi.
“He and I were talking the other day on the field and he said, ‘It’s just great to be here in the offseason,’” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “To be able to go through the offseason with the team instead of trying to hit the ground running like he did last year. … I think he’s got a certain amount of comfort now.”
Will Ajayi’s comfort make him more prone to protest when he isn’t happy? Pederson has done a tremendous job of dousing potential firestorms. Sproles and Clement will likely get their touches, particularly on third down, but Ajayi should get the bulk of playing time on first and second down.
Some players have trouble maintaining their focus when playing in a contract year, but Ajayi said it shouldn’t be difficult.
“At the end of the day, it will sort itself out,” Ajayi said. “I can only control what I can control and that’s my play and my attitude coming in every day.”