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October 31, 2017

LeGarrette Blount still the starter, but Jay Ajayi could be Eagles' long-term RB solution

Eagles NFL

If nothing else, one thing about the Philadelphia Eagles came abundantly clear on Tuesday: They’re all-in on the 2017 season.

At 7-1, the Eagles already have the best record in the NFL – and according to most outlets, the best team in the league – but that apparently wasn’t enough for them. Probably because they know none of that matters come January. 

That’s why, on the day of the NFL trade deadline, Eagles Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman decided to make a blockbuster deal, acquiring Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, the fourth-leading rusher from a year ago, in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

At that price tag, the “why” behind the trade isn’t difficult to decipher – they want to win a Super Bowl and clearly felt this helped them get closer to achieving that goal. They also get a young running back who is still under contract for another season, meaning they didn't have to mortgage the future in order to improve in the short term. In fact, it they may have improved the outlook for both in one shot.

But exactly how it's going to work on Sundays remains somewhat of a mystery, especially considering the Eagles have been one of the better running teams through the first half of the season and are currently ranked fifth in the NFL at 129.3 yards per game.

“We like our running back group,” Roseman said Tuesday afternoon. “This was an opportunity that came to us that we thought was a good player that could add to our team, a young player who is under contract for the next couple of years. And, at the same time, everyone’s seen the way LeGarrette [Blount] has run; Wendell [Smallwood]’s had really good games for us; Corey [Clement]; we brought Kenjon [Barner] back as well. So it just adds to the group.”

So with all those running backs playing well, including the starter, Blount, who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 100 carries, where does Ajayi, used to being the workhorse in Miami, fit into the current group?

“All that stuff, playing time, is sorted out by the coaches, but LeGarrette continues to be our starter,” Roseman added. “We’re just really excited to have that group and add a good player.”

There's no doubt that Ajayi is a good player – after all, he ran for over 1,200 yards last year, more than any current Eagles running back has ever recorded in a single season, and racked up eight touchdowns – but that doesn't mean he's immediately going to be at the top of the depth chart. 

We'd come back after those [joint practices with the Dolphins] and say, 'That's our kind of guy.'

“LeGarrette’s been productive when he’s gotten the ball,” Roseman said, adding that Blount took the trade news well. “He’s a warrior and he’s a two-time Super Bowl champion. And we’re really glad to have him. You know, I really shouldn’t get into starter roles – that’s really up to the coaches – but we’re counting on LeGarrette going forward."

And that's precisely what offensive coordinator Frank Reich wants to convey to Blount.

"‘Keep doing what you're doing. You're a big reason we're 7-1,'" Reich said when asked what his message to Blount will be following the trade. "'You're a big reason we made the strides we made in the running game. Your tenaciousness running the football, the attitude you’ve brought, the toughness that you’ve brought and the unselfishness you’ve brought is a big part of our identity. So that’s what we hope for to continue.’"

"This is not a reflection of any of those running backs," Roseman added. "This was a good opportunity for the Philadelphia Eagles and our job is to add good players who fit what we do. We believe that Jay Ajayi does that.”

While trading a fourth-round pick for a starting-caliber running back who is still under his rookie contract may seem like a no-brainer, the move doesn’t come without some skepticism. 

At 24 years old, there have already been concerns about the health of Ajayi’s knees, but Roseman didn’t seem worried. He also didn’t seem concerned over reports that Ajayi has had some attitude issues in this past. Nor did he seem bothered by the fact that the former Dolphin’s numbers are down significantly this year (138 carries, 465 yards, 3.4 YPC, 0 TDs).

While the deal came together quickly on Monday, the Birds' interest in Ajayi is nothing new. 

In fact, Roseman said he and others in the organization have had their eyes on Ajayi since the Eagles and Dolphins held joint training camp practices back in August.

"We'd come back after those practices and say, 'That's our kind of guy,'" Roseman said.

That was long before the Eagles were 7-1 and had visions of Lombardi Trophies dancing in their heads. So perhaps, then, the addition of Ajayi isn’t just indicative of the Eagles’ intentions of making a postseason run this year. They could be thinking about the future as well.

Following this season, both Blount and injured running back Darren Sproles will be free agents. Now, given that Ajayi is under contract for 2018 as well (at a relatively cheap cap hit of $705,000), the Birds could let both of them walk – assuming, of course, that Ajayi remains healthy and shows the kind of production he has in the past.

But Roseman didn’t want to look past the current season – and wasn’t quite willing to admit that the Eagles would’ve needed to add backfield depth in the offseason anyway. 

“I don’t necessarily know that there’s a problem [at running back for which] we need a solution,” he said. “I think that when we look at our running game, it’s been pretty successful so far this season. I think we’ve got good players there, but when you look at having a stable of backs, when you look at playing in December in tough conditions and bringing those guys coming off the bus, it’s something that works out on its own.”

I guess we’ll have to wait until Sunday, when the Eagles host the Broncos at the Linc, to find out exactly how the Eagles plan on using Ajayi.

In the meantime, how do the Eagles plan on keeping their ever-growing stable of running backs happy?

"Keep winning," Reich said with a laugh. "Winning has a way of keeping everybody happy."


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