The X-Factor: Can Jay Ajayi Live Up to Expectations for the Dolphins in 2016?

When the Dolphins drafted Boise State running back Jay Ajayi in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, there were some mixed reviews. From one perspective, Miami had just gotten themselves a steal. After all, he was the only player in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history to total 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a single season. Yet the injury and character concerns that directly contributed to his draft day slide still remained and put an undeniable cap on the level of excitement regarding Ajayi becoming a Dolphin.

However, heading into Ajayi’s rookie season, he was not burdened by the pressure of leading Miami’s backfield. Lamar Miller was still in town, hopeful to finally turn his tantalizing promise into results on the field. What was Ajayi’s role in the offense? The former Boise State star was only tasked with occasionally relieving Miller in order to add a different dimension to the offense while keeping Miller fresh.

Now Lamar Miller is off to Houston, Jay Ajayi is the main cog in the Dolphins’ backfield, and Kenyan Drake is the player expected to come on in relief. Will Ajayi be up to the task? That remains to be seen. But he showed enough in limited playing time in 2015 to at least make the new coaching staff excited about the possibility.

Strengths:

It sounds strange to say about a fifth round pick, but nearly every aspect of Ajayi’s skillset as a runner screams workhorse back. Considering the amount of carries Ajayi received in a single game maxed out at nine in 2015, the sample size is quite obviously small. Yet when you go back and watch his game tape, the second year back displays the various attributes needed to be truly special in Gase’s offensive scheme.

Ajayi debuted in Week 9 against division rival Buffalo Bills and wasted no time making an impact. He only received five carries, but took advantage of them with an 8.2 YPC (his highest single game average of the season). None were more impressive than the 23-yard scamper shown below:

ajayi 23

He sets up his blocks well, explodes through the hole, and breaks through an arm tackle: all staples of high-end running back play. Yet this may not be the most telling carry of Ajayi’s from the matchup against the Bills. How about this modest gain, displaying his impressive ability to stop on a dime and change directions?

Ajayi COD

Or maybe this simple, if not unspectacular, six-yard run, displaying his speed around the outside:

Ajayi outside

Or perhaps the most significant takeaway of them all, Ajayi using his decisiveness to make a four-yard gain out of nothing:

Ajayi 4

Truth be told, these plays mean little when analyzed alone. However, put these skills together and you begin to understand why some scouts had Ajayi as the third ranked running back in his draft class (behind only Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon). What truly inspires optimism is the fact that the attributes described above can be noticed throughout his game tape, not just in the examples already given. Take these next two clips for example:

Ajayi eagles

Ajayi big run

Explosiveness? Check. Power? Check. Vision? Check. Elusiveness? Check. I could probably go on but I’ll spare you, because is there anything else you could really ask out of a running back? At 6’0” and 221 pounds, Ajayi looks the part of an NFL running back but, unlike many of those before him who solely “looked the part,” Ajayi could truly turn out to be a difference maker for head coach Adam Gase and this Miami offense.

At this point, the only positive aspect of his game that I haven’t touched on yet is his receiving ability. Gase is notorious for getting his running backs involved in the passing game, and Ajayi should be more than enough help in continuing the trend. He displays soft hands, solid route running, and a natural capability to set up blocks. Plus, when he gets the ball in space: watch out. Whether the play is designed to get him the ball or whether he is simply acting as Ryan Tannehill’s safety blanket, Jay Ajayi’s talents out of the backfield add another dimension to his already promising game:

Ajayi reception

And in case I wasn’t clear enough about my confidence that he will be able to successfully transition from second to first on the depth chart, I’ll leave you with this: the first touchdown of Ajayi’s young career:

Ajayi touchdown

Yea, I think he could be pretty good.

Weaknesses:

090415-NFL-Dolphins-Jay-Ajayi-PI-CH.vadapt.980.high.92

(Steve Mitchell – USA TODAY Sports)

If you couldn’t have already guessed, there isn’t much I dislike about Jay Ajayi’s game. Yet the question is still begged, will he stay healthy enough to display his tantalizing talent? While Ajayi has consistently downplayed questions about his knee since he became a Miami Dolphin, surgically repaired ACLs act like ticking time bombs. Ajayi didn’t fall to the fifth round for no reason; even the slightest misstep could be absolutely devastating.

Additionally, Ajayi cracked a rib in the preseason finale last year. While that should not cause issues heading into his second season, it doesn’t take much for a player to be tagged with the “injury prone” label. For a player with his history, set to take on the first serious workload of his young career, health will obviously remain a worry for at least the near future.

Almost all other concerns regarding Ajayi revolve around consistency. Consistency in hitting the holes, in pass protection, in catching the football, in pretty much everything really. Coming out of college, Ajayi ran east/west instead of north/south in the backfield far too often. Now, that no longer appears to be that big of an issue. In his rookie season, Ajayi seemed to embrace contact; not going out of his way to find it, but not shying away from it either. Miami will need that trend to continue in order for the offense to run smoothly.

Fortunately, Ajayi should have a much easier time on the ground in 2016, with the help of a healthy and improved offensive line. That leaves his role in the passing attack, despite his obvious potential in this area, as the most concerning area of his game as he attempts to be the team’s three-down back. Gase has historically had high demands of his running backs in this regard. Not only does he expect them to be reliable in the screen game and on delayed routes, but also they NEED to be able to block for their quarterback. Ajayi has always shown a willingness to partake in pass protection, and he has the frame to withhold a blitz, but his technique has often been lacking. While Dan Campbell insisted throughout last season that Jay Ajayi was showing drastic improvements in his blocking technique, it will be interesting to see where he stands now after a full offseason under Adam Gase. With protecting Tannehill as high a priority as ever, Ajayi doesn’t have much room for error.

On a slightly less significant note, Ajayi still needs to perfect the art of catching the football. He has shown a ton of potential in this area, but there were times last season were he seemed to lose concentration. Take this next play for example:

Ajayi drop

Even though Tannehill probably waited too long to throw this ball, it was still right on the money and Ajayi should’ve been able to come up with it with the potential to pick up a first down. While I don’t see dropped balls being a huge issue for Ajayi in the future, it was one of the weaker parts of his performance as a rookie, and I would be remiss not to mention it.

The Skinny:

Evidently, Ajayi outperformed expectations in his rookie season. While he experienced some undeniable growing pains, overall, he created a ton of optimism throughout the Dolphins’ franchise that he can successfully replace Miller in Miami. Gase has talked him up throughout the offseason, calling him “very impressive,” saying that he has separated himself from the rest of the running back pack, and leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that he will be the starter heading into the season.

Considering the apparent difficulty of Miami’s schedule for the upcoming season, 2016 should be about nothing more than progress. The team simply needs to take a step forward as a whole, and Ajayi is going to play a vital role for the offense. A ton of attention is going to be focused on Tannehill, and rightfully so (he too is approaching a crucial time in his young career). Yet, as we watch the Dolphins endure a brutal stretch to open the season, let’s not forget about Ajayi. While he seems like the obvious leader in the backfield at the moment, he needs to prove that he is ready to be the guy for Gase beyond 2016 as well. Despite the loss of Miller this offseason obviously hurting, Dolphins’ fans should take solace in the fact that they have an exciting young running back waiting in the wings, ready to make a name for himself with more runs just like his first career touchdown (I couldn’t help myself, it’s too pretty to be shown just once):

Ajayi touchdown

 

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