Most eyes fixated on running back Jay Ajayi at the start of Eagles practice Wednesday, the first day Ajayi took the practice field at the NovaCare Complex after Tuesday’s trade. Ajayi wore No. 36 – the first Eagles running back to wear that number since Brian Westbrook – and was ready for a fresh start in Philadelphia.
“A whirlwind of emotions,” Ajayi said of his arrival. “Definitely enjoyed my time as a Dolphin. …Getting the news I’m going to be an Eagle, understanding what that comes with, understanding where this team is, and just wanting to be a part of this team and put my head down and get to work.”
He’ll do that in a crowded backfield. Coach Doug Pederson is apparently taking a wait-and-see approach with Ajayi, withholding judgment until he sees how quickly Ajayi picks up the Eagles’ offense before determining Ajayi’s role. Pederson said veteran running back LeGarrette Blount’s role remains unchanged and didn’t even commit to playing Ajayi on Sunday against the Denver Broncos until he sees what happens during the practice week.
“I can’t just throw him out there without him … understanding what we’re doing,” Pederson said. “Again, it goes back to how fast Jay can pick up our system and get comfortable with the things we’re doing. Again, it would be a disservice to just throw him out there right away. Nothing’s going to change as far as the rotation and how we’re doing things right now.”
Ajayi said he’s beginning to get comfortable with the playbook and learn his new teammates. He hit all the expected notes in his introductory news conference with the Eagles, repeating how happy he was to be in Philadelphia and his willingness to help however he can.
Following the trade, a report indicated that Ajayi did not fit with the locker-room culture that the Dolphins wanted and that he was a me-first player. Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz were confident that Ajayi would not be a problem in the Eagles’ strong locker room, and Ajayi tried to distance himself from the undesirable label.
“Those are the criticisms that are out there,” Ajayi said. “I can only speak on how I view myself. I view myself as a team guy. I’m excited to be on the Eagles, excited for this opportunity. That stuff, at the end of the day, is in the past. Woke up today as a Philadelphia Eagle and I’m very excited about it.”
There were also reportedly concerns about the long-term health of Ajayi’s right knee, which he injured in college. Ajayi passed the Eagles’ physical. He said his “knee is doing good” and he’ll stay “diligent” with it while creating a plan with the Eagles’ training staff.
Ajayi said he has worked to make himself a three-down running back, which would require him to block and catch. Pederson lauded his receiving ability, even if that wasn’t how he was featured in Miami. Pederson also said Ajayi has a good understanding of pass-blocking responsibilities, and Ajayi already has had a crash course with running backs coach Duce Staley about what the Eagles want from that position.
“Whether it’s blocking, catching the ball out of the backfield or running hard for this team, I’m ready to do anything,” Ajayi said.
The running is not much of a question with Ajayi after he rushed for 1,272 yards last season. Pederson called him a “tough, power runner” with “great vision” whose first step allows him to go quickly behind tackles and guards. One tackler isn’t often successful in bringing him down either, Pederson said. Ajayi plans to run that way for the Eagles, emphasizing how he can create yards even when they’re not apparent.
“That’s a lot of my style, breaking my tackles downhill and making big plays for the team,” Ajayi said. “I don’t think that’s going to change. … I’m a downhill runner looking to make plays for the team.”
He just met many of his teammates on Wednesday, but Wentz reached out to him after the trade and Ajayi said he has a past relationship with Blount. He has long admired Staley, whom he watched as a kid and spoke with when the Dolphins and Eagles practiced together in August. Pederson believes Staley is the “perfect coach for handling this situation” of mixing Ajayi into the meeting room with the other running backs.
There’s still much for Ajayi to learn about the Eagles – and much for the Eagles to learn about Ajayi. But Ajayi knows he has a chance to become a major contributor on a contending team.
“We’re 7-1 and I’m excited about that,” Ajayi said. “An opportunity to go get this thing. I’m just here to be a part of that, however the coaching staff wants to use me.”