Jay Ajayi Fantasy Profile 2018: Undervalued Potential

Jay Ajayi Fantasy 2018

Jay Ajayi went from being an unwanted Dolphin to a Super Bowl champion Eagle thanks to a mid-season trade last October. Now with a Super Bowl ring in hand and more breathing room on the depth chart after LeGarrette Blount’s departed to Detroit, Ajayi is primed to take over the lion’s share of Philadelphia’s rushing attack. Even if Carson Wentz fails to return to his pre-injury, MVP caliber form, Ajayi should see more touches and scoring opportunities in 2018.

The Building Blocks

In 2017, the Philadelphia Eagles were carried by the league’s third-best offense and fourth best defense. This offseason, GM Howie Roseman sought to preserve Philadelphia’s strength on both sides of the ball by handing out a long-term contract to Alshon Jeffery, acquiring Michael Bennett from Seattle, and drafting potential impact players like Dallas Goedert and Josh Sweat.

Most Super Bowl victors suffer offseason hangovers, and the loss of Vinny Curry and Mychal Kendricks will certainly hurt. But make no mistake – the Eagles are still a very, very deep and talented team. And as Jason Kelce would have you remember, they became World Champions in spite of losing star players to injury across every corner of their roster.

Philadelphia’s offense was partially carried by a number of surprise playmakers last year, headlined by undrafted free agent Corey Clement. Clement, who caught four balls for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, projects to be the starting third-down tailback this season.

The Eagles’ running back corps is large, but I don’t anticipate that size translating to a committee. Drafters will be deterred by the number of mouths to feed, but closer examination reveals a dearth of talent and, correspondingly, fantasy value.

Wendell Smallwood lost his job to Clement last season, has had a difficult start to camp and is working with the third team offense. Matt Jones, astoundingly, has fumbled every 34 touches over his career and is fourth on the depth chart. Darren Sproles is coming off of a gruesome ACL tear, is 35, and has announced his intention to retire next season (it’s no surprise, therefore, that Sproles isn’t expected to be a focal point of the offense). Donnel Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick from 2017 who averaged just 1.9 YPC and suffered several injuries during his rookie season, may not even make the roster.

That leaves Clement and Ajayi. First, I’m not convinced that their success is zero-sum. We’ve seen a number of two-man backfields produce obscene fantasy numbers (looking at you, Saints and Falcons). Historically, teams that are capable of such results boast strong defenses and consistent quarterback play. Even if Wentz regresses or is injured again, the Eagles promise to have both.

Further, I anticipate that Philadelphia will utilize Ajayi as a traditional, three-down back. Clement averaged only 4.2 carries per game last year, and while that figures to increase a bit in 2018, the former Badger is at his best while catching passes out of the backfield. Even if you think Nelson Agholor is the real deal in the slot, Clement figures to spend some time lining up at receiver this year. Ajayi, on the other hand, is ready to assume the bell cow role. Duce Staley appears to agree. 

 

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Jay Ajayi’s History

Originally born in London, Ajayi moved to Texas and became a three-star running back recruit. He played three years at Boise State, where he rushed for over 3,700 yards and 50 touchdowns. The Dolphins drafted Ajayi in the fifth round of the 2015 draft.

Ajayi broke out in 2016, racking up over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and finishing as RB11 in Standard. He was a Pro Bowler that year and tallied three 200-yard games, a feat shared only by O.J. Simpson, Tiki Barber, and Earl Campbell. Ajayi’s follow-up 2017 campaign was a relative disappointment, with just over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and an RB34 finish.

As a player, Ajayi is a bruising between-the-tackles back who has average receiving skills. The Dolphins voiced displeasure with his pass blocking, which partially influenced their eventual decision to ship him to the Eagles.

Despite injury concerns surrounding his ACL tear in college, Ajayi has proven to be durable. He suffered broken ribs during his rookie season, but his overall injury risk is relatively average (even after sustaining two healthy seasons and accruing over 500 carries in the NFL).

Why Jay Ajayi Could Succeed

Jay AjayiAjayi only received 31% of the Eagles’ carries in 2017, perhaps partially due to Doug Pederson’s preference for rushing committees. But his usage increased to nearly 50% of carries in the playoffs, indicating that Ajayi was one of the most trusted parts of the Eagles’ offense (even when Blount was still on the roster). During his first season with the Eagles, Ajayi’s YPC also rose to 5.8, nearly double that of his pedestrian 3.4 average in Miami.

It’s easy to guess why Ajayi became more efficient so quickly. He was suddenly rushing behind the best offensive line in football (the Dolphins were one of the worst). He left the NFL’s fourth-worst rushing offense in Miami for the third best one in Philadelphia. Carson Wentz’s prolific passing and dynamic mobility, coupled with talented receivers like Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz, meant that opposing defenses couldn’t stack the box against him anymore.

All of these weapons will return to Philadelphia in 2018, while Ajayi will be more confident in and comfortable with what was once an unfamiliar offensive system. And Nick Foles ensures a measure of stability if Wentz goes down again.

Ajayi is also heading into a contract year this season. Players tend to produce their best campaigns before such years, partially because their franchises want to get as much production out of them as possible before they hit the open market. The incentives are aligned for Doug Pederson to gives Ajayi as many offensive opportunities as possible, and for Ajayi to make the most of them. It’s a good sign, too, that Pederson has already noted that Ajayi is among the best-conditioned athletes returning to Eagles camp from the offseason.

Why Jay Ajayi Could Not Succeed

I see two main barriers to Ajayi’s success.

First, it’s entirely possible that he gets injured. Obviously, the running back position is at heightened injury risk relative to others, and Ajayi does not have a clean bill of health. His reconstruction surgery reportedly caused multiple GMs to take him off their draft board entirely. A number of teams also expressed concern that Ajayi would likely need microfracture surgery at some point in his career. Adam Schefter even reported that his knee was “bone on bone”.

While Ajayi has held up well so far, he’s done so in spite of admitting frequent knee pain and nursing ankle injuries. The Eagles may limit his workload on purpose to avoid these injury concerns coming to fruition. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe in the injury narrative or the running back who’s carried the ball over 450 times in the past two years.

Second, the Eagles could shy away from deploying Ajayi as their bell cow, limiting his fantasy opportunity. By Week 13, Ajayi had taken over the lead role (and subsequently averaged nearly 14 carries per game). But it’s always possible that one of Philadelphia’s other backs flashes talent or that Corey Clement is so good that Doug Pederson can’t take him off the field. We’ve seen Ajayi’s involvement progressively increase during his time in Philadelphia, but we don’t know what the ceiling on that production is or how a new season and new offensive coordinator will affect its trajectory.

Jay Ajayi Fantasy Value ADP Outlook 2018

Jay Ajayi Fantasy ADP 2018

As you can see from the graphic, Jay Ajayi’s average draft position has been hovering in the third round. He is usually the 16th to 20th RB taken in a fantasy draft.

My Take

Ajayi only has 79 career receptions, so his upside in PPR is a bit more limited than in Standard. I don’t think his lack of receiving talent matters, though, because a combination of Corey Clement and Darren Sproles will see the majority of passing opportunities anyway.

From Howie Roseman to Doug Pederson, to Duce Staley, the Eagles have signaled that they want Ajayi to get more carries. It’s an open question how many more carries that affirmation represents. Depending on where you can get him, with an ADP currently in the fifth round on ESPN and low 3rd round at Fantasy Football Calculator, I’m drafting Ajayi every time. He is too talented to pass over playing behind an excellent offensive line.

Yes, it’s possible Philadelphia’s offense regresses (even though they are getting back their potentially MVP caliber QB). It’s also possible that Ajayi is mired in a committee or gets injured. But I don’t index any of these concerns heavily enough to shy away from Jay’s top-5 upside. We’ve seen him produce mightily on a bad offense, behind a really bad offensive line, with this quarterback. Imagine what he can produce with a full season in Philadelphia. Draft Jay Ajayi in the third or fourth round and thank me later.

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