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Eagles will start Jay Ajayi slowly, but Ajayi could soon become the lead running back

Zach Berman, STAFF WRITER

Updated: Friday, November 3, 2017, 11:44 PM

Newly acquired Eagles running back Jay Ajayi (left) walks past running backs Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner during his first practice with the Eagles at the NovaCare Complex November 1, 2017. Ajayi was acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins.

Jay Ajayi unpacked his belongings in a locker stall that once belonged to LeSean McCoy. The Eagles issued him the No. 36 jersey – one that was famously worn by Brian Westbrook.

That’s good company for a player who could be the Eagles’ next lead running back. Except after trading for the 24-year-old Pro Bowler on Tuesday, the Eagles have tried to calm expectations.

The public messaging has been somewhat subdued considering the Eagles acquired a high-profile rusher who ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards last season. You would have thought they brought in a journeyman to fill the roster by their wait-and-see approach. This was by design, and it was more of a reflection of the locker room and the Eagles’ 7-1 start than anything about Ajayi.

The Eagles didn’t see the running game as broken, so Roseman didn’t want the running backs to view this move as a reflection of the running backs or the direction the front office plans to take the position. At 7-1, Pederson was happy with his roster. He didn’t want it to come across like the Eagles looked elsewhere for a player to bolster their season. Ajayi is finding his place with a group that didn’t start the week expecting a move of this magnitude.

“It has been great,” Ajayi said. “This is a great team. Obviously, shows by what they have been able to do so far this year. It has been cool to feel appreciated and to be part of the team.”

After the trade, Roseman, Pederson, and running backs coach Duce Staley all called LeGarrette Blount. There was attention paid to how the move would resonate. Pederson is lauded for being a players’ coach, and he understands the psyche of NFL players.

Momentum in the NFL lives a fragile existence. Chemistry can be easily disrupted. There’s a detached, practical way to evaluate at the trade – the Eagles improved by adding a good player – but there’s also the understanding of more forces at work. This shouldn’t mollify the fans’ excitement for or expectations of Ajayi, because the Eagles changed their running game on Tuesday.

Although Ajayi will slowly be integrated into the offense – the Eagles have introduced him to 10-15 rushing plays leading into Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, and he’s not even guaranteed to play – he could emerge as their top running back down the stretch run this season and into next year.

It might not immediately be reflected, but it’ll be apparent during the next two months the Eagles found a player who’s more explosive than the other running backs on the roster; who could develop into the three-down running back that the Eagles lacked; and who provides security at a position muddled in ambiguity beyond this season.

“I don’t necessarily know that there’s a problem that we need a solution,” Roseman said. “I think when we look at our running game it’s been pretty successful thus far this season. We think we have good players there. When you look at having a stable of backs, when you look at playing in December, in tough conditions and bringing those guys coming off the bus, it’s something that we are excited about.”

HOW HE FITS

The Eagles now have five running backs on the 53-man roster: Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner. Even though the Eagles rank fifth in the NFL, quarterback Carson Wentz has contributed nearly 20 percent of the rushing yards and the team collectively averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry during the past four weeks. Pederson likes to tailor his runs to each rusher. He’s impressed with Ajayi’s “one-cut move to the inside,” “tremendous vision,” and ability to “hit the hole extremely fast.”

Ajayi’s favorite play is reportedly the outside zone, which Pederson likes to use but hasn’t been a staple with the current personnel. Ajayi could bring a dimension they don’t have. The Eagles’ running backs haven’t consistently been able to bounce outside for big gains. A criticism of Ajayi in Miami this season is that he too often tries to hit the home run, but he’s at least capable of doing so – and his yards after contact ranked among the best in the NFL last season.

“I don’t think my style is always looking to bounce,” Ajayi said. “It’s taking what the defense gives you, even if there’s nothing there, creating things when nothing’s there. …Being able to break tackles downhill and make big plays for the team. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Ajayi said the Eagles’ scheme is not similar to the that of Dolphins, and he’s worked to quickly understand the concepts this week. Staley has given Ajayi a crash course on what the team expects and Ajayi said the bye week will be important for him to learn the system. Pederson only introduced him to a limited sampling plays – “it definitely won’t be the full complement of the playbook,” Pederson said – but Ajayi’s running instincts could translate regardless of the play call.

“As a running back, I feel you’re running best when you’re using your instincts and not thinking,” Ajayi said. “That’s how I’ve always ran and made plays. Definitely the way the blocks are schemed up here are different than Miami. But I’m getting more comfortable.”

Blount, who leads the team with 467 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry, will still figure to have a notable role. But the Eagles also need to be cognizant about preserving him for late in the season. Blount’s production waned late last season and into the playoffs during a year when he had his highest usage. He’s already on pace for 200 carries this season.

“That’s something I can’t answer,” Blount said of his role will change. “Me personally, I’m just worried about me. I’m just worried about what I can control. Grind every day like I’ve been doing, and the touches will be.”

Clement and Barner are both needed on special teams, and there’s a chance Smallwood could become the odd man out. Pederson insisted that the Eagles need all five, especially if injuries mount late in the year.

“If you’re going to make a strong playoff run and be a contender each year, then I think you’ve got to have the ability to run the ball down the stretch,” Pederson said. “I’m going to tell you right now, it’s going to take every one of them. Every one of them is going to have a role.”

AN EYE TOWARD THE FUTURE

Pederson is only worried about this season. In a coach’s eyes, short-term is a day’s practice and long-term is the upcoming game. But Roseman and the scouting staff are tasked with taking a more macro approach, even if they would not suggest that’s the impetus of the deal. The Eagles have long-term planning at each position, and the down-the-road picture at running back was unclear.

Blount, 30, is on a one-year contract. Darren Sproles, 34, has an expiring contract, is coming off two major injuries, and hinted pre-injury that he would consider retirement. That left Smallwood, Clement, Barner, and Donnel Pumphrey.

Ajayi provides security, taking running back off the priority list. The Eagles don’t have a Day 2 draft pick after trading their second- and third-round pick in previous deals. Their cap space might need to be allocated elsewhere. Ajayi will be 25 next season with a salary of $705,000. As much as he helps the Eagles in their playoff push this season, his best work could come as the starting running back in 2018.

“A big part of this trade is the fact that it’s a 24-year-old back who is not just on a one-year deal,” Roseman said.

For most of the past two-plus decades, there was no question about the top running back in Philadelphia. During a 12-year span from 2003 to 2014, the Eagles had only two leading rushers: Westbrook and McCoy. And even before Westbrook, there was a defined succession – Duce Staley came after Ricky Watters who came after Herschel Walker.

Since McCoy’s unceremonious trade in March 2015, the running back order has been disrupted. DeMarco Murray lasted one season. Ryan Mathews’ time as starter ended in the training room. And this year’s committee approach seemed to be a Band-Aid that would need to be re-applied during the offseason – until Tuesday’s trade.

Ajayi has McCoy’s locker and Westbrook’s number, and he could soon take the role they once had in Philadelphia.

Zach Berman, STAFF WRITER

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