In 2018, Jay Ajayi will set out to accomplish something only LeSean McCoy has been able to do before him.
Convince Howie Roseman to reward a running back with an expensive, long-term contract.
The Eagles haven’t been afraid to hand out big contracts to backs in the past. Brian Westbrook signed a five-year extension worth $32 million in 2008. DeMarco Murray agreed to a five-year free-agent deal worth $42 million in 2015.
But the Westbrook contract came before Roseman ascended to the top of the Eagles’ front office, and Murray pact happened during Roseman’s one-year hiatus. To this point, McCoy is the only back to receive a major multi-year commitment from Roseman in eight total offseasons as general manager, signing for five years, $45 million in 2012.
This, of course, is all relevant to Ajayi because in today’s NFL, teams are often reluctant to get locked into long-term contracts with ball carriers. Running backs’ primes tend to be shorter than those of players at other positions, with one study showing a lead back’s decline begins to set in at 28 years oldon average.
Not all organizations operate by the same set of guiding principles, so studying a GM’s past can offer some clues as to how they might navigate difficult contract situations – and in Ajayi’s case, there might be hope.
Roseman has largely piecemealed the Eagles’ backfield together since McCoy was traded, but that deal demonstrated a willingness to sign a truly special back long-term. That was also the philosophy of the Andy Reid-Joe Banner regime that extended Westbrook and produced Roseman.
Ajayi certainly could qualify as a special talent if he runs anything close to the way he did last season. In the 10 games after arriving in a trade with the Dolphins, including playoffs, the 6-foot, 223-pound back carried 112 times for 594 yards – a 5.3 average – with 16 receptions for an additional 161 yards and two total touchdowns. His three fumbles were an issue, but Ajayi was otherwise dominant while learning a new system on the fly, albeit in limited work.
As long as Ajayi follows up with a strong campaign in ’18, there are reasons to believe the Eagles might be willing to commit. He’s only 25, so a prototypical five-year deal would take him through age 29, no doubt with the ability to get out of the contract sooner. Even Ajayi’s chronic knee injury isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, as the Eagles were aware Westbrook’s knee was already deteriorating when he signed.
Naturally, much of what happens depends on the season ahead. Declining performance linked to the knee would be devastating, especially when Ajayi already has Corey Clement nipping at his heels for more playing time.
Yet, it’s not outrageous to imagine a scenario where the Eagles re-sign Ajayi long-term. It doesn’t happen all the time, but this team has paid its running backs before.
Then again, not everybody is as special as LeSean McCoy.
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