Wendell Smallwood

Are Eagles barreling toward contract dispute with Jay Ajayi?

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Are Eagles barreling toward contract dispute with Jay Ajayi?

After sharing the backfield last season, Jay Ajayi appears to be in line for a bigger role with the Eagles in 2018. Will he demand a contract commensurate with his status as the primary ball-carrier?

There were a lot of stories floating around when the Eagles acquired Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round draft pick in October. Yet rumors about a selfish athlete who would demand more touches never externalized after the trade, as the Pro Bowl running back worked seamlessly with LeGarrette Blount.

Team culture and locker room chemistry, as one Miami Herald report put it, proved to be non-issues. Now that Ajayi spent 14 incident-free weeks with the Eagles, the story has been altered slightly.

“But to say a clash of personalities was the only reason the Dolphins dealt Ajayi would be wrong,” Adam H. Beasley of the Herald wrote.

“Ajayi, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, was not shy about telling the Dolphins he wanted a contract extension.”

The timing of Beasley’s report — the morning after the Eagles won the Super Bowl — lends the appearance of damage control. Per NFL rules, Ajayi isn’t even eligible to sign an extension until March 2018, so any conversations about a new deal were likely preliminary in nature.

But just because Ajayi was a good soldier in his relatively short time with the Eagles doesn’t mean money can’t come between them. He’s set to earn only $705,000 next season as the team’s No. 1 back, having averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 10 games, including playoffs. Blount, by the way, is a free agent.

The trouble is paying Ajayi might be easier said than done. The Eagles have a lot of maneuvering ahead with the salary cap this offseason, and based on current projections, they’re actually over the spending limit at the moment.

The cap space dilemma should buy the Eagles some time — at least a few months. But if the organization isn’t making progress on a new deal with Ajayi by this summer, it’s fair to wonder what the consequences of that might be.

RUNNING BACKS BREAKDOWN
*Ages as of September 2018

Jay Ajayi
Age: 25
2018 Cap Hit: $705,000

The other issue here is Ajayi’s health. Some around the NFL feel his right knee is a ticking time bomb, which led to his falling to the fifth round of the 2015 draft and obviously was a factor in the trade. Ajayi possesses amazing short-field burst but visibly labors at the end of long runs. The Eagles may need to placate him financially but should be cautious about the structure of an extension.

Donnel Pumphrey
Age: 23
2018 Cap Hit: $699,000

If we’ve learned anything from guys like Nick Foles, Nelson Agholor and Brandon Graham, maybe don’t write players off after one or two seasons. Or, in Pumphrey’s case, one preseason. A fourth-round pick, Pumphrey looked like a massive disappointment before landing on injured reserve. It was a much-needed redshirt year for the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader. He’ll get a shot to earn a roster spot as the third back and return specialist.

Wendell Smallwood
Age: 24
2018 Cap Hit: $691,000

At this point, Smallwood probably needs a change of scenery. He runs hard but wasn’t able to stay healthy his first two seasons in the league, and his opportunity with the Eagles has probably passed. With a clear depth chart already forming, a trade would be beneficial for Smallwood.

Corey Clement
Age: 23
2018 Cap Hit: $558k

Another reason the Eagles would hesitate to pay Ajayi: He may not even be the most talented back on the roster. Clement carved out a role as the offense’s change of pace in the playoffs, recording 10 receptions for 139 yards with a 55-yard catch in the Super Bowl and a 22-yard receiving TD. He finished with 616 yards from scrimmage as an undrafted rookie, including 172 in the postseason. All appearances are Clement can be a starter in this league.

Darren Sproles
Age: 35
Free Agent

Sproles reportedly wants to return for his 14th NFL season, and until recently the Eagles were probably very interested. Since Clement emerged as a viable receiver out of the backfield, maybe less so. Money is a factor as well. Sproles was lost for the season to a torn ACL and broken forearm in September.

LeGarrette Blount
Age: 31
Free agent

Prior to his stellar performance in the Super Bowl, Blount was showing signs of slowing down. Over the Eagles’ final eight games, including playoffs, he averaged 3.7 yards per carry — 2.9 if you subtract the Super Bowl. Blount is a volume back, and his touches diminished after the trade for Ajayi as well, but the late-season dip in performance is part of a larger trend for this particular aging back.

Kenjon Barner
Age: 28
Free agent

Re-signed after the injury to Sproles, Barner was primarily used as a specialist, lining up for only one offensive snap in the playoffs. Aside from earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his first game back, he was not an especially dangerous or reliable return man, either.

Previously: Quarterbacks

Doug Pederson changes his tune on Eagles' RB rotation

Doug Pederson changes his tune on Eagles' RB rotation

Doug Pederson has sworn by a running back rotation all year. With the playoffs on the horizon, that could be changing.

Pederson said Tuesday there's a chance Jay Ajayi, who's been the Eagles' most effective running back down the stretch, could have an expanded role once the postseason begins.

LeGarrette Blount finished with a team-high 173 carries for 766 yards, and Corey Clement had 74 carries for 321 yards. Ajayi carried 70 times for 408 yards in seven games after the Eagles acquired him from the Dolphins in October.

Wendell Smallwood (47 carries), Kenjon Barner (16 carries) and injured Darren Sproles (15 carries) were also part of the mix at one time or another.

But Ajayi's 5.8 average is third-highest in the NFL over the second half of the season, behind only Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (6.3) and Saints rookie Alvin Kamara (6.1).

Ajayi has also become a factor in the passing game, with a career-long 32-yard catch against the Giants and his first career receiving touchdown against the Raiders. He didn't play against the Cowboys on Sunday.

Pederson has stuck to a running back rotation all year, but on Tuesday he said Ajayi could very well be the featured back when the playoffs begin.

"I think that's a possibility," he said. "What he's shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week and we'll see where he's at this week health-wise. I think he's one of the guys that we can rely on.

"Again, I don't want to get away from the things that got us to this point, too. That's the other thing. You don't want to just abandon ship on everybody else. But I do think there could be a little more role for him down the stretch."

Ajayi has lingering knee soreness, so that's a consideration, too. Including his time with the Dolphins, Ajayi had 208 carries for 873 yards and 232 total touches in 14 games this year.

Pederson said Tuesday Ajayi either won't practice or will be limited on Wednesday. The Eagles don't play until Jan. 13.

Ajayi and Blount both have postseason experience. Ajayi ran 16 times for 33 yards in the Dolphins' wild-card round loss to the Steelers last season. Blount has played in eight career playoff games, all with the Patriots, with 111 carries for a 4.2 average and eight touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl rings with the Patriots after the 2014 and 2016 seasons.

Pederson said whatever happens with Ajayi, Blount will remain a key part of what the Eagles are doing

"LeGarrette has embraced his role," Pederson said. "I'll tell you what, he's been a pleasant surprise, particularly with the younger guys. He understands his role. He's going to be a big part of the success and has been a big part of the successes this year already.

"He has been to the pinnacle. He's been there and understands it, what it takes. Those are the things I'm going to lean on him with our team and with the guys that haven't been there. How to practice, how to prepare. So he's really done a nice job this his role."

From key roles to spectators for 3 Eagles

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From key roles to spectators for 3 Eagles

As the Eagles beat the Giants last week at MetLife Stadium, Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood and Rasul Douglas mostly watched. 

There are a few things those three players have in common. One, they're all young draft picks over the last two years. Two, they've all had big roles with the Eagles at some point this season. Three, they don't have those roles anymore. 

Seumalo, a third-rounder last year, began the season as the Eagles' starter at left guard but lost his job after two games. He's a backup now and played just four offensive snaps against the Giants. 

Smallwood, a fifth-rounder last year, was set to have a big role with the Eagles this season. After Darren Sproles went down, he was supposed to take over on third downs. But he's struggled to stay healthy and has been inactive for the last five games since Jay Ajayi got to town. 

And Douglas, a third-rounder this year, started and played well for the Eagles when Ronald Darby was out. But since Darby's return, Douglas has been on the bench. He was inactive last Sunday for the first time since the season opener. 

As a head coach, Doug Pederson is aware these three are in a tricky situation. It's his job to make sure they're staying invested now that they're mostly spectators. 

"Yeah, just having the open dialogue with them," Pederson said. "Still communicating with those three guys. As you've said, they’ve all had a little bit of a significant role this season already. But just making sure that they stay plugged in.
 
"Who knows what happens tonight obviously or next week where these guys might get a little more time. It takes everybody. They get good service team reps. Just make sure they stay plugged in from my standpoint and also their position coach."

Pederson said he has to treat younger players differently in these types of situations. Veterans who have been around the league seem to understand when these things happen. 

This is new for first- and second-year players. 

"They've come from college where they've been the starter and been the guy and now they're on a team where everybody is really good," Pederson said. "You have to kind of manage or massage that just a little bit."

Right in the action
On Monday night, when Lane Johnson takes his spot at right tackle, he'll have Khalil Mack staring back at him. 

Just the latest reminder of how tough the right tackle position can be. 

While teams have historically put their better tackle on the left side of the line to block the blindside of right-handed quarterbacks, there's a reason the Eagles didn't move Johnson over when Jason Peters went down this season. Johnson is the only right tackle to make the Pro Bowl this season. 

"I think the right tackle position needs to be reevaluated because you look at the guys we have to block," Johnson said. "Right tackles have to block key guys in the NFL now. I think left tackle, right tackle, the dilemma is changing. There's really nowhere to hide." 

Making the Pro Bowl has long been a goal for Johnson, but not just for him. He wants to kill the stigma of playing on the right side of the line. He hopes getting voted into this year's Pro Bowl could help others. 

"It feels good," Johnson said. "I hope this puts right tackles in the spotlight because there's a lot of good right tackles out there who are deserving as well. Maybe that will change now."

Out of the backfield
Since Sproles' season ended in Week 3, the Eagles have been missing an element of their offense. They just don't have a running back that's a huge threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. 

While Ajayi isn't Sproles — "No one could be Darren," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said — he has at least shown a little bit of pass-catching ability in the screen game. 

In five games with the Eagles, Ajayi has eight catches for 70 yards. During that same five-game span, the Birds' other three running backs have nine for 104. Corey Clement has six for 71, but just won't be on the field as much as Ajayi in the playoffs. 

"Jay pretty quickly showed that he had a knack for that," Reich said. "We feel comfortable mixing all of our backs in on the screens. Jay certainly did a great job. In the last couple games, he's had two really nice ones where the timing and the feel and his location. We talk a lot about exact spots to get to, adjusting. He's done a really good job."

Quote of the Week I: "It was just in my feelings." -- Darby on his mini Twitter rant

Quote of the Week II: "I'm not planning on playing." -- Malcolm Jenkins on making the Pro Bowl 

Quote of the Week III: "Kelce got snubbed so bad I'm starting to wonder if the voters are all trash cans." -- tweet from Chris Long about Jason Kelce, who did this last week

Random media guide note: Kenjon Barner's favorite meal is eggs, bacon and syrup.