Heading into the 2017 season, the running back position seemed sorted out, but was still one of the biggest question marks on the Philadelphia Eagles roster — just as it has been ever since Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy. Things looked promising though, with a depth chart that included two proven veterans, Darren Sproles and LeGarette Blount, and second-year Wendell Smallwood coming off a rookie season that included snaps in 13 games and 312 rushing yards.
The running back rotation worked out for about three weeks. In Week 3, Darren Sproles went out with several injuries, and would ultimately end up missing the entire season. Cue rookie Corey Clement, who did a fairly impressive job filling in for the do-it-all Sproles, but the roster was still lacking some experience at the position.
Then, Howie Roseman, in all of his greatness, traded the Miami Dolphins for third-year rusher Jay Ajayi. It was a move that was both lauded and criticized, with some worried that Ajayi’s reputation as a distraction in the locker room would mess up the chemistry the Eagles built under Doug Pederson. (Spoiler: It didn’t.)
There were no issues and Ajayi got straight to work. In his first game after the bye, Ajayi had only seven carries, but managed 91 yards and a 13-yard per rush average, thanks to a huge 71-yard play. Not too shabby for a guy who only had two weeks with the play book — even if he did let the defense catch up him at the end.
Jay Ajayi since becoming an Eagle— Philly Bleed Green (@phillybldgreen) November 20, 2017
11.2 yards per carry
1 TD pic.twitter.com/xoxuVsgVM4
He had fewer than 10 carries in each of his first four games in an Eagles uniform, but eventually found his stride and, along with Blount, was part of the 1-2 punch that became the Eagles run game by the end of the season. In his seven games with the Eagles in 2017, Ajayi recorded 70 carries for 408 yards -- in addition to his 10 receptions for 91 receiving yards.
The good news? Ajayi is hungry for more.
“Obviously, things have gotten a little shaken up in our room,” Ajayi said, according to Jeff McLane of Philly.com. “I’m excited to get into that lead role, do what’s needed of me and just go bull. It was kind of a year and a half removed from being ‘the guy.’”
Drafted in 2015, Ajayi saw a decent amount of playing time his rookie season, but really hit his stride in Year 2 for the Dolphins. In 2016, the running back was very much ‘the guy’ for the Miami offense, claiming 1,272 rushing yards off 260 carries (17.3 carries per game) and eight touchdowns. He also nabbed 60 first downs, 10 runs for over 20 yards, and 4 runs for over 40 yards that season.
“I would like to consider myself a workhorse running back, a grinder,” Ajayi said after OTAs earlier in the week. “I believe it’s tough for a defense to go against me for four quarters of just getting me running out of attack and just pounding, pounding.”
Getting back to more of a workhorse position, is what Ajayi is looking for. With Blount now suiting up for the Lions, he has a great opportunity to put the running back room on his shoulders and get paid for his efforts next offseason.
Ajayi is still playing on his rookie contract, and is heading into the final year of that deal. Having helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2018 will certainly go along way when he hits the negotiating table next spring, but if he can propel himself to the leader of the RBs, he could get a long-term deal to stay in Philly.
“Obviously, you understand what the stakes are going into this season,” Ajayi said to Philly.com of his contract situation. “I’m not going to let it affect the way I carry out my business. Obviously, yeah, I understand that is something that will come to a crossroads at some point, whether it’s during the season or at the end of the year.”
There’s no question in my mind that Ajayi is young enough and talented enough to be a contributor for the Eagles offense for a long time. So long as he keeps his attitude right — which hasn’t seemed to be a problem for even a second since he joined Philadelphia — and keeps barreling through defensive lines to find the endzone, I am happy to have him.
Plus, it seems like he’s made more than a few friends since joining the Eagles locker room.