Jay Ajayi – Breaking knees or Break out year?

Leading up to the 2015 NFL draft, Jay Ajayi was regarded as the one of the best running backs coming out that year. He was compared to Marshawn Lynch by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein. He was featured on the NFL networks show: Game Changers. Ajayi was thought to be the third best running back in the draft and a top 50 prospect. He was quickly becoming a household name for even the occasional “draftnik”. Draft analysts across every network linked Ajayi to the 2nd round, 3rd round at worst. On May 2nd, 2015 Jay Ajayi was drafted in the 5th round to the Dolphins with pick 149. How did this happen?

On April 20th, 2015, Dane Bruglar of NFLDRAFTSCOUT.com (CBS) was the first to report the knee concerns. His website article and twitter posts stated that teams had “strong concerns” about Ajayi’s knee following the combine recheck. Bruglar was called out because Ajayi was never called back to Indianapolis for a recheck. He later “corrected” himself by posting on twitter the concern came from team visit’s re-checks, not the combine. Somewhere between the initial report and the correction, twitter went nuts. Dozens of articles were written explaining their take on Ajayi post knee concerns.  No actual sources of any kind were ever mentioned in any of these articles but rest assured, Bruglar “trusts his sources”. Then reports came out saying teams have removed Ajayi from their draft boards due to these knee concerns. Even Bruglar has said, no team has said that. The exact April 26th headline on Rotoworld.com was: ‘Several teams’ hesitant with Ajayi’s knee. This poor kids draft potential was now at the mercy of twitters version of “telephone”.

There were people questioning these reports but without sources, how to do you debunk a rumor? I doubt Bruglar was lying but I refuse to dismiss the high probability that he was being fed inaccurate information. Teams do not share medical reports on players with the media, especially this close to the draft. Shortly after these reports dropped, a narrative started to developed seemingly out of thin air; “The knee is fine right now, the question is longevity”. This narrative jumped off the screens of Twitter into the mouths of NFL and ESPN draft analysts within a matter of hours. There was no indication of where these reports came from, what the tests were, and what the extent of the damage was. There were quotes thrown around like “bone on bone” and “2-3-year window” but only after being followed by “what I am hearing is…”. So to recap, we went from “strong concerns” to “bone on bone” and “basically no cartilage left” within a matter of days without one person attaching their name to the comments. Coincidentally now days before the draft.

About 12 days after the first mention of his “long term knee concerns”, Ajayi became a 5th round draft pick. This was 2-3 rounds later then his projections following his final year at Boise state. The narrative and his draft spot suggests that we are dealing with a player like Marcus Latimer or Jaylen Smith. A player that had a horrific injury in the final year of his college career and has shown nothing since the injury to improve his stock.

Rushing Receiving Scrimmage
Year Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD Plays Yds TD
*2012 82 548 4 1 14 0 83 562 4
*2013 249 1425 18 22 222 1 271 1647 19
*2014 347 1823 28 50 535 4 397 2358 32
Career 678 3796 50 73 771 5 751 4567 55

(** courtesy of http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/jay-ajayi-1.html**)

That is actually not the case with Jay Ajayi. The injury in question was an ACL tear from 2011. This made him a redshirt freshman at Boise State. Since having the injury, Jay Ajayi has had 771 rushing attempts at Boise state. It’s safe to say he can handle a heavy workload considering he led the nation in carriers in 2014 with 347. Look at the rest of his stats though. He basically was Boise State’s offense. In 2014 he had 1823 rushing yards and 535 receiving yards off of 50 catches. Ajayi came in second in the nation only to Melvin Gordon in rushing touchdowns. If those regular season stats weren’t enough, how about his fiesta bowl performance. His final game before entering into the NFL, 134 yards rushing and 3 TDs.

Outside of Gurley, he was the most complete back in the draft. He had the size to run up the middle and he did it in traffic better then Melvin Gordon. He was not as fast as Gordon to the edge but he had more moves in open space. Ajayi’s hip movement for a 225lb back is insane. He is nearly impossible to bring down in open field. He could take the hits on pass protection and had the pin ball mentality when in the trenches. Bouncing off defenders and always falling forward. He was by far the best pass catching running back in the draft…But ya know, bad knees right? Imagine the pain tolerance and mental strength of a dude amassing nearly 4600 yards of offense since his injury, all while having bone on bone contract in his right knee.

 

(**courtesy of In My Prime Productions**)

Now, to his landing spot and the current narrative surrounding Ajayi. The Dolphins feel like they got a steal. They never thought they would be able to get Ajayi where they got him. Dolphins General manager Dennis Hickey has been quoted saying “That was not really an issue for us as much”. The assistant General Manager has been quoted saying his medical history “was not an issue”. Dan Campbell, the interim head coach after Philban was fired, thought Ajayi was better than Lamar Miller. Jay Ajayi deserved to get drafted. So good on the dolphins for going against the grain and taking a shot on him. Not every team in the NFL was able to bring him in for a personal workout. There are only so many allowed by each team. It only takes one rumor for group think to sink in and spread throughout the hearts of NFL GMs. Reporters, beat writers, and twitter amateurs will bite at anything that can eventually lead to clicks on their website, and teams know this. With how many needs the average NFL teams have and the devaluation of running back in the NFL, it doesn’t surprise me that he dropped. I can totally see the chain of events that took place.

When talking about Jay Ajayi, to this day, everyone remembers the draft narrative. That bone on bone narrative became one of those single serving sound bites one spout off near a water cooler to sound smart about football. Still, to this day, there has been no proof that he has failed any physicals due his knee injury in 2011. People will still cling to that narrative. We all do it with players. There are too many players in the NFL to remember scouting notes on everyone.

Now that free agency has passed, most dynasty owners have notice that Lamar Miller is gone. Ajayi is currently the lead back in Miami and Adam Gase is known to work wonders with his running backs. He’s been able to get guys like Knowshon Moreno, CJ Anderson, and fellow rookie Jeremy Langford to produce big stat lines. Seems like everyone is willing to buy low on Ajayi but any attempt to defend his value suddenly brings anger, like “how dare you ask more for the injured piece of crap I’m trying to trade for”. These same owners will point out how the Dolphins have been looking for other Runnings backs in free agency so Ajayi is obviously nothing more than a backup. Currently the only other running backs of note on the roster are Damien Williams, Isaiah Pead, and Daniel Thomas. If you are an NFL, team how do you go into the season with that group. Of course you need another running back or two!

The Dolphins could very well pick up a free agent like Arian Foster, Pierre Thomas, or they could draft a rookie. This will not change Ajayi’s value compared to his draft place in 2015. Last year Ajayi was seen going in rookie drafts anywhere from the 10th overall pick to the mid-twenties. What running back do you plan on drafting in that range that is going to have a better shot at starting then Ajayi? What rookie running back, outside of Ezekiel Elliot, do you plan on drafting in the top 10 that has a better situation? There aren’t many teams that bring a running back on for a true 3 down role. Outside of Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley, I don’t think you will see any other ones in the NFL in 2016. Nearly every team will have a committee of running backs. Either for separate roles (between the tackle pounder or pass catcher) or to keep them all fresh. Nearly 100% of rookie running backs drafted this year will be in a committee. Right now, Ajayi is the only guy and the chances of the Dolphins bringing in someone to put him entirely on the bench is highly unlikely. If you own him in Dynasty, you are a fool to “cash out” for less then you paid for him. Which likely means your keeping him this season because no one is trying to pay for bone on bone. Enjoy your declarations of vengeance on your fantasy league when Ajayi breaks out this year.

Truelife: I’m an Ajayi Truther

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1 Comment

  • Kind of reminds me of Jeremiah Trotter. Coming out of college there was concern about his knees and he dropped all the way down to the third round. but you knew the guy could play. He went on and had a good career and I think Ajayi will to. Sometimes you have to just take a shot on someone. I’m still surprised that Ajahi dropped all the way down to the 5th round.

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