Will Jay Ajayi once again struggle to be an RB2 in 2018?
Eric Karabell
ESPN INSIDER


The Philadelphia Eagles managed to win 13 regular-season games and eventually a Super Bowl sans any players rushing for as many as 800 yards last season. In addition, no Eagles running back finished among the top 35 in PPR scoring. It did happen and it can happen again, but early words from Eagles personnel this offseason indicate Jay Ajayi, who was fourth in the NFL in rushing yards and ninth in attempts back in 2016, will handle an increased workload this coming season, and fantasy managers seem excited about the possibilities.

Well, that all seems like it makes perfect sense, in theory, but I do not rank Ajayi as one of my top 20 running backs for PPR -- or non-PPR -- purposes as of now, so ... I better get to explaining myself.

One of the foundations of this championship team -- yes, I actually do think I will refer to the Eagles as Super Bowl champions in each and every blog entry until some other team wins next February -- was its uncommon teamwork and ability to share responsibilities, as well as the next-man-up theme that sounds great until a weak link is exposed. The Eagles as a team finished third in rushing yards last season, some of that achievement a byproduct of possessing myriad second-half leads and controlling time of possession, but also because their personnel was simply effective, including a standout offensive line.


Veteran LeGarrette Blount led the way with 766 rushing yards, though he saw sporadic playing time in the second half of the season after the Miami Dolphins eagerly dumped Ajayi the Eagles' way entering Week 9 for a fourth-round draft pick. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement emerged as a capable player after Darren Sproles was lost for the season and led the team's running backs in receiving yards during the regular season and all Eagles in that category in the Super Bowl win. Ajayi averaged a cool 5.8 yards per rush, but he also was not provided a large workload. It was not necessary.

What has changed? Blount has since bolted town for the Detroit Lions, but the rest of Ajayi's competition is back. Clement should see a larger role, and not merely on third downs because Sproles, one of the preeminent pass-catching running backs in history -- and recent history as well, despite turning 35 years old -- is healthy and returning. It is important to note he is a standout blocker as well and that Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is recovering from an ACL tear. Wendell Smallwood, who actually led Eagles running backs in receiving targets -- albeit with a mere 18 -- is back. That used to be two games for Sproles! Donnel Pumphrey, the all-time rushing leader in FBS history -- though a rookie bust -- is back. Notre Dame's Josh Adams is vying to be this year's Clement, an undrafted but certainly proven college player. It is crowded.

I believe the Eagles really would like for Ajayi, their best running back but a player they have absolutely no investment in beyond this season, to handle initial lead-back duties. However, there are reasons for skepticism and it starts, for me, not with the team's depth and philosophy but with this player's history of chronic knee problems. While this sounds harsh, the Eagles could view Ajayi as disposable, and that works both ways. Perhaps he is the one featured early in the season with the knowledge that there are ample replacements available possessing different and, to be blunt, more versatile skills sets. The Eagles, quite wisely, realize it is rare for a team to rely on only one running back. The position grinds players out and spits them out, and this organization does not need to show the least bit of loyalty to Ajayi. The goal is to play in February, not support a 1,000-yard rusher. However, say the right things in June about the player and he is motivated.

After all, Ajayi was available for the low cost of a fourth-round draft pick because the Dolphins appeared fed up with some combination of his performance, attitude, physical health and who knows what else. Running backs with three 200-yard rushing games to their credit tend to be coveted, and Ajayi certainly starred at times, but he was a bit more inconsistent than we should want in his breakout 2016.

Yep, I sure did have concerns entering the 2017 season, since nearly half of Ajayi's 2016 rushing total occurred over those three games, including two against a weak Bills run defense. In his other 12 games that season, Ajayi topped 80 rushing yards once and averaged an ordinary 3.7 yards per rush. All games count, of course, but Ajayi had three big games that season but more than three ineffective performances, and he was a minor factor in the passing game. The Dolphins did not covet Ajayi. The Eagles, with a winning season and team philosophy working, risked little to acquire him, and by all accounts, Ajayi fit in nicely with the team concept.

Ajayi has waited his turn, knowing Blount would be elsewhere this fall, should be confident he is the best running back on the club -- and I do not doubt this fact -- and he is certainly a proven commodity. The Eagles, however, do not need to alter a successful philosophy and rely solely on one running back. For starters, they have others more accomplished in catching passes, and I think protecting Wentz simply comes above all other duties. Few would regard Ajayi as a particularly strong or willing blocker, but Sproles is.

OK, so to summarize, here are my main reasons I do not think Ajayi will finish the season as a top-20 PPR running back:

-- The team's running back depth is too great, and Ajayi is a bit one-dimensional for this offense, perhaps more like Blount -- but better -- than we admit. Perhaps he can catch passes, but with Sproles and Clement around, why would he have to? Ajayi will not be much of a factor in the passing game, and that matters in PPR, but I also believe he will struggle to get more than 15 carries per game, just like Blount did.

-- I do not think Ajayi catches 25 passes in 2018, which is a problem. Chicago Bears star Jordan Howard probably did his best in 2018, but without being a factor in the passing game (23 catches), he finished as the No. 15 RB in PPR. Can Ajayi compensate for this key fact with rushing yards and touchdowns?

-- Ajayi's history of knee woes is worrisome and makes him a more risky play than most on a weekly basis. Again, if he limps off the field in the first quarter of a game, with this depth, why push him? Ajayi's future contract really is not the Eagles' problem.

-- It is a bit difficult to trust that the controversial Ajayi, in the last season of his rookie contract, will be as pleased with a timeshare of playing time as he was last November. He needs the football more than I believe the Eagles will give it to him -- not close to Howard's usage -- and based on comments out of Miami about his attitude and desire to go for the big plays rather than the ones called, he might not handle playing half the snaps so well.

Ultimately, Ajayi did not even finish the 2016 season as a top-10 PPR running back, and while the overall situation in Philadelphia is a positive one, I see a timeshare looming, regardless of what Eagles personnel say. Coaches and management say things all the time, and only some of them come true. Ajayi is talented and presumably motivated, but I see negatives in his past that minimize sleeper status for me, and I can find 20 other running backs -- not 25, but more than 20, including pass-catchers such as Jerick McKinnon and his former Miami teammate Kenyan Drake, as well as Howard -- whom I would prefer to invest in for PPR purposes.