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June 15, 2018

Will Eagles really use Jay Ajayi as featured back?

Eagles NFL
Carroll - Eagles Stock Jay Ajayi Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Jay Ajayi during OTAs at the NovaCare Complex.

Eagles running back Jay Ajayi wants to make sure that the team has a train sound ready to play at home games at the Linc.

The "Jay Train" only had 408 yards on 70 carries last season after arriving in Philly as part of a mid-season trade. He showed his value and potential but never really overcame LeGarrette Blount for the top spot in the running backs rotation.

And in the playoffs, the dynamic versatility of Corey Clement saw Ajayi fade to a third option. The Eagles won the Super Bowl and let Blount walk in free agency. And for a bulked up, energetic and determined Ajayi, the starting role is his for the taking.

"There were certain plays I had never run before and I didn’t run those plays," the running back said during OTAs a few weeks back, "but the full menu is open and now I can get a grasp on every play, what makes them go and it's basically like starting from square one with instals and everything."

Ajayi is looking more and more like the to-go guy and a leader in the locker room alongside veteran Darren Sproles. But is the Eagles' coaching staff on the same page?

"[Jay] came in last year and obviously proved to us that he can handle it," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Yeah, he's definitely going into camp as the No. 1 guy. It takes nothing away from what Corey did or what Sproles has done here, Wendell [Smallwood], Pump [Donnel Pumphrey] is coming back, Matt Jones. You've got guys that are going to compete in that role."

The man who will ultimately be making the decision on who gets the most carries and when will be running backs coach and assistant head coach Duce Staley. And he's high on Ajayi as well.

"He came in, he was eager, he was hungry," Staley said. "He heard about everything that was said about him that was out there and I tip my hat. He stayed countless hours, he was in the meeting rooms. He wanted to know more he wanted to learn."

"A lot of that is gut," Staley said, when asked about how he distributes snaps. "A lot of it is a feeling. If you get a guy who is hot, it's almost like a pitcher in baseball. If he gets hot you want to keep him going. You want to keep that juice going. It's about getting the right guy on the field and keep that juice going and rotate someone in who is going to continue to keep that juice flowing."

Last season, Blount lead all Eagles with 173 carries, with Clement second (74) and the late-arriving Ajayi third (70). The year before, Ryan Mathews had 155 carries, Darren Sproles 94 and Wendell Smallwood 77. Leading all NFL players in 2017, LeVeon Bell had 321 carries on the year with 17 more backs accumulating more than 200. From a fan (and fantasy football standpoint), is there enough reason to believe a Birds tailback will eclipse the 200 carry threshold for the first time since LeSean McCoy in 2014?

"I think he will," Staley said. "If you look and study us for the last couple of years, a lot of that comes from being that guy. When we have a group of backs, we are going to start off with a back and he's going to run until his tongue is hanging out and then here comes the next guy. A lot of you see that as a running back by committee and I would agree with that.

"I am pretty sure Jay is excited about going out there and being able to dominate and be that guy. I know Doug is excited about it also so I guess we will see."

Pederson seemed less convinced in his last press conference before a five-week break prior to training camp.

"I don't think, though, that from a scheme standpoint it's going to change much with a rotating running back room like we had last year with LeGarrette and Jay and Corey," Pederson said. "I think there's a time and a place for that. Each game is a little bit different. And so I'm excited about that."

You can make your own conclusions. But it sounds like the Eagles are, at least willing to commit to riding Ajayi as a featured back when the season kicks off. Whether or not he'll put up numbers like McCoy or Bell is anyone's guess.

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