The Eagles certainly made a splash at the trade deadline, acquiring Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins. Now the question becomes whether Ajayi will sink or swim with his new team.
Most people have already made up their minds that trading a fourth-round draft choice for Ajayi was a good thing. The 24-year-old is under contract through 2018 and cost effective. He finished fourth in the NFL last season with 1,272 yards rushing on 4.9 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns.
Ajayi is a high-profile player, so naturally there’s going to be a lot of excitement. However, this was a move that is not without some reasonable and serious concerns for the Eagles.
With a 7-1 record, the Eagles are clearly trying to win now, which is wise, while a fourth-round pick isn’t exactly a massive investment. It was still a pick the club could ill-afford to part with, having already dealt second- and third-round selections in ’18. More to the point, by no means is it a given Ajayi will be worth the price.
Full disclosure: I didn’t think the Darren Sproles trade was all that great initially (though I quickly backtracked), nor did I believe LeGarrette Blount would have a big impact here. Obviously, I was wrong on both accounts. But the Eagles didn’t have a shortage of picks when they sent a fifth for Sproles, and Blount is a discount free agent on a one-year deal. The stakes were a lot lower in those situations.
Talent has never been a question for the third-year player but there are quite a few red flags worth considering.
1. Inconsistent production
First and foremost, Ajayi is not having a good season. He’s averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry — tied for 42nd among 49 qualifying players, per ESPN — and has eclipsed 100 yards just twice in seven games, and has yet to find the end zone.
To be fair, the Dolphins' offense as a whole is terrible. The unit is ranked dead last in the NFL in both total yards and scoring. None of the other backs are experiencing any success, though Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake have split 22 carries between them. Point is, Ajayi’s disappointing production is partially a reflection of the team around him.
That doesn’t absolve Ajayi of any responsibility for his own numbers. Dolphins coach Adam Gase has accused the back of trying to hit too many home runs. And Ajayi might be dealing with lingering effects from an early-season knee injury as well, which is a larger issue in itself.
Even in 2017, Ajayi was extremely hit or miss, running for over 200 yards in three games, but maxing out at 79 in all others. Between that and the concern with his health, he may never be the type of back who consistently gets the job done.
2. Chronic knee condition
The problem with Ajayi’s right knee is no big secret. He fell to the fifth round of the draft in 2015 in large part because of the condition that some worried could prevent him from ever playing in the NFL. Others felt he would be able to play out his rookie contract with it, at best.
According to reports that emerged at the time of the draft, Ajayi’s surgically repaired right knee is described as “bone on bone.” It’s also the same knee that landed him on the injury report earlier this season.
If the Eagles are thinking long-term with Ajayi, a chronic knee condition is certainly a downer. His contract runs through next season, at which time the club may have to make a difficult decision about whether to offer an extension — and that’s if he doesn’t start clamoring for a raise this offseason.
But even in the present, this is something that may be bothering Ajayi now, and if that’s the case, is likely partially to blame for his poor start. Even in a superior offense behind a better offensive line, there may be limits to just how much the Eagles can cover that up.
3. Passing game woes
One area where the Eagles’ backfield could certainly use some assistance is in the passing attack. Everybody knew replacing an injured Darren Sproles would be next to impossible, and it’s been as troublesome as expected. The protection, in particular, has been a nightmare, while the combination of Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner has managed 19 receptions for 155 yards.
The thing is, Ajayi doesn’t represent much of an upgrade in this aspect of the game. He might be a better blocker than that bunch, yet he's also been called out for missing assignments in protection this season. Ajayi hasn’t been much of a threat as a target at the pro level, either, which at 6-feet, 223 pounds is not exactly unexpected.
Carson Wentz doesn’t seem to check down to his backs a whole ton anyway, so maybe Ajayi’s receiving ability is of little importance. His ability to protect Wentz, on the other hand, is vital, and if he’s not proficient in that area, then what sets him apart from Blount or the rest of the pack?
4. Where does Ajayi fit in?
Ajayi is a scary downhill runner when he gets on a roll. But why is that something the Eagles needed?
That was the reason for signing Blount, was it not? And he’s been solid in that role, rushing for 467 yards with a 4.7 average and two touchdowns. Ajayi is younger, and he’s probably a lot quicker and faster (if healthy), but the two are sort of duplicates of each other — tough, between-the-tackles runners who aren’t especially dynamic in the passing game.
It seems to me, and this is just my opinion, if the Eagles were going to trade for a running back, they should have gone after somebody who could complement Blount. Somebody like, say, Colts running back Frank Gore, who brings more versatility to the table, and presumably would have come cheaper.
How much does going out and getting somebody in the same mold as Blount help the offense?
Perhaps a lot, and perhaps I’m guilty of undervaluing Ajayi in all phases. There happens to be some precedence for that. Regardless, this doesn’t have the look or feel of a cure-all, or even a move that addresses the limitations in the Eagles backfield. Maybe such a move wasn’t available to be made, but at first glance, this doesn’t appear to solve the unit’s glaring problems.
5. Chemistry lesson
We’ve already touched on Ajayi’s bad attitude in a story of its own, so we won’t delve too deeply into that here. But the Eagles have an amazing locker room, with a bunch of tireless workers and selfless leaders, while there are reports Ajayi is a me-first, 9-to-5 guy.
That in itself might not be a reason to avoid acquiring a player. Taken with everything else — his inconsistent production, limitations in the passing game, chronic knee condition, questions about need/fit — it just seems like an unnecessary risk.
If Ajayi looks like the player he was in 2016, piling up 200 games by the handful for the Eagles, his character issues will likely disappear with all of the other legitimate concerns. But if he’s stuck in a rotation, and not racking up the carries and numbers he wants, what kind of vibe will Ajayi be bringing into the locker room?
Ultimately, his play on the field will dictate a lot, as far as whether or not this was a wise trade by the Eagles. But even if Ajayi winds up being by far the best back on the roster by season’s end, there’s still a distinct possibility he’ll prove detrimental to the team.
The Eagles obviously felt these were all risks worth taking, and no doubt, many fans do as well. As always, time will tell.