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October 31, 2017

Why Jay Ajayi cost so little – and why those red flags don't seem to worry Eagles

Eagles NFL

While the Eagles' decision to trade a fourth-round pick for Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi seems perfect on paper, it's not. Because no player is perfect.

Ajayi, a 24-year-old out of Boise State who finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last season, was the feature back in Miami, but will now have to adjust to life in a crowded Eagles backfield, one that will almost certainly afford him fewer opportunities on Sundays. 

While adding that kind of depth to a team that's already an NFL-best 7-1 and ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards per game seems like great idea, you can't help but wonder why Ajayi cost so little – and why another team, one in greater need of a backfield upgrade, didn't try to offer anything better.

There are a few reasons the 6-foot, 215-pound former fifth-round pick came so cheap – you've may have read about them already – but none of them seemed to worry Howie Roseman enough to make him think twice about pulling the trigger on Ajayi.

So what are these red flags – and, more importantly, why isn't the Eagles GM concerned? Let's examine...

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HIS ATTITUDE

Armando Salgeuro of the Miami Herald wrote on Tuesday that the reason Ajayi was traded less than a half season after rushing for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns has to do with the fact that he never "fully bought into what the Dolphins are trying to accomplish."

With Ajayi this was surprising because last season he was the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher and he worked extremely hard in the offseason to increase his value to the team by improving his pass-catching skills. He worked on that and all it entails -- route running, hands, pass protection -- to be on the field on third down. ... 

But the yards per attempt and the third-down role were not the chief reasons Ajayi was traded hours ago to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-round draft pick. Ajayi is still a good player and behind a good offensive line, he’ll do good work.

The reason Ajayi was traded has to do with team culture and locker room chemistry and player buy-in.  [miamiherald.com]

So the guy who "worked extremely hard in the offseason" to improve his game (immediately after a season in which he finished fourth in the league in rushing) is the one who hasn't "fully bought into what the Dolphins are trying to accomplish?"

That being said, there have been other reports of disagreements between Ajayi and the Dolphins coaching staff, particularly head coach Adam Gase, who recently took some not-so-subtle public shots at his now-former running back following Miami's 40-0 loss to the Ravens. 

We do a lot of research on players before we trade for them... We weren't going to bring anyone here that would disrupt team chemistry.

And last year, following the announcement that Arian Foster would start the season atop the team's depth chart, Ajayi was so upset that Gase decided to make him inactive for Week 1 and didn't even let him travel with the team. In a crowded backfield that already has plenty of hungry hands, it will be interesting to see how Ajayi responds to what will inevitably be a reduced role – at least to start.

On Monday, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was asked about the potential impact in the locker room if the team were to acquire someone ahead of the deadline.

"That's why you have to be careful, I think," Pederson said. "It's got to be the right fit. It can't just be anybody. From my standpoint, you don't want to disrupt the chemistry that is going on in the dressing room right now. And those guys are playing with a lot of confidence, and they're rallying around each other. So it would have to be a pretty special fit to make it work."

No one's questioning what Ajayi is capable of accomplishing on the field, but given what Pederson said about how a new player can disrupt team chemistry, it appears the team believes their new running back will fit in just fine.

"We do a lot of research on players before we trade for them," Roseman said when asked whether or not the Herald report concerned him at all, especially given what the head coach said a day before. "Not only did we do a lot of research on a guy like this before, when he comes out in the draft, but we do that here before we make a deal. Really, in this league, you do business with people that you trust and we feel like we have a good understanding of what was going on there.

"We also have a good understanding of what we have in our locker room and the chemistry that we have on this team. We weren't going to bring anyone here that would disrupt team chemistry. We feel very confident and comfortable about the player."

Still, the Birds aren't privy to everything that goes on behind closed doors at the Dolphins facilities, so there are no guarantees that Ajayi buys in here either. That remains to be seen.

As for whether or not the Eagles will be able to get him enough touches to keep him happy, Frank Reich offered up a possible solution.

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

That's the bottom line here. The winning they've already done put them in a spot to make this deal possible in the first place. And the winning they hope to do in the second half of the season could be what makes this deal look incredibly savvy by season's end.


HIS HEALTH

In addition to concerns about his presence in the locker room, there's also been some worry over the health of Ajayi's knees. In 2011, Ajayi tore his right ACL while in college. And while knee soreness has caused him to miss some practice time with the Dolphins, it's never caused him to miss games. 

In 2015, his rookie season, Ajayi missed the first half of the year after breaking his ribs in the final preseason game after sitting out much of that preseason with a hamstring injury. In 2016, Ajayi was a healthy scratch in the season opener, but he's played every game for the Dolphins since then. Even after dislocating his shoulder in the penultimate game last season, Ajayi returned the following week for the season finale against the Patriots. 

Still, some believe that, in addition to his locker-room presence, is part of the reason the Dolphins were willing to give up on Ajayi so quickly and without getting much in return.

Once again, Roseman doesn't seem worried.

"Yeah, the beautiful thing is that we do physicals on players," he said. "I'm not a doctor and we have a lot of faith in our medical staff and our trainers and doctors. We share that information before we make a trade like this. I'm not concerned about any reports other than the ones given to us."

HIS PRODUCTION

There's no doubt that Ajayi's stats are down from his breakout 2016 season. 


RUSH
YD/ATT
RUSH
YD/GM
REC.
YD/REC
REC.
YD/GM
TOT
TD
2016 4.9 84.8 5.6 10.1 8
2017 3.4 66.4 4.8 9.6 0

But football is a team game, and in order to evaluate Ajayi's performance, you also have to take into account how his offensive line is playing, not to mention whether or not his team's passing game poses a threat or if teams continually load the box in an effort to neutralize him. 

If there are opportunities to improve our team, and improve where we're at, we have a responsibility to the people on the field, to the people off the field and to our fans to evaluate everything.

It seems Ajayi isn't getting much help. As Salguero pointed out in his column, "Ajayi is still a good player and behind a good offensive line, he’ll do good work."

Roseman seems to agree.

"Well, I think you look at the Chargers game and the Falcons game and you could argue that he put the team on his back," he said, referring to the season opener in which Ajayi carried the ball 28 times for 122 yards. "That’s this season. Obviously, last year he had a tremendous year – 1,249 yards, averaging almost 5 yards a carry – but this is a physical, downhill running back who can pick up yards after contact. He can make people miss. He had 52 catches his junior year at Boise [State].

"Again, [he’s] 24-years old. When you watch him, if there's an alley, he's getting something. He's also going to impose his will on defenders."

*  *  *

Like we said at the top, this trade has the chance to pay huge dividends for the Eagles this season – and moving forward given Ajayi's age – but that isn't the real beauty of the deal. That lies on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Because of the cost and where they sit in the standings, Roseman was able to pull this off without having to worry about any long-term implications because it only cost a fourth-round pick and takes up very little salary cap space while potentially giving them a starting running back to replace LeGarrette Blount, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.

"I think you take into account where you are [in the standings]," Roseman said. "It's certainly different when you are 7-1 than if you're having a losing season. But at the same time, we are not going to do anything that puts us in a bad spot going forward. A big part of this trade is the fact that it’s a 24-year-old back who is not just on a one-year deal."

In other words, the potential upside of acquiring Ajayi far outweighs any possible negative impacts, especially since the Eagles don't see the concerns we listed above being an issue here in Philly. 

"If there are opportunities to improve our team, and improve where we're at, we have a responsibility to the people on the field, to the people off the field and to our fans to evaluate everything," he added. "That's our job and that's what we have been doing here, really, throughout the course of the season."

With the best record in the NFL, it's really hard to argue with Roseman's thinking.

No deal is perfect, but this one is about as close as you can get.


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