Jay Ajayi Will Have Tough Time Living Up to RB2 Expectations (2018 Fantasy Football)
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. I’m guilty of that definition a few times, and I’ll usually look back and wonder what I was thinking. There are plenty of those willing to go to bat for Jay Ajayi once again in 2018, though I haven’t been one of them. Doing these player profiles (have a landing page for all of them right here) has allowed me to take a deep dive on these controversial players, ensuring you (and me) don’t miss anything.
After landing the starting job when Arian Foster decided to retire in 2016, Ajayi walked into a massive workload in Adam Gase’s offense that had traditionally worked well for fantasy running backs. He was the fourth-straight running back to finish as a top-12 option under Gase, leading everyone to believe he was worth a top-20 pick in 2017 drafts. If you had paid attention to the Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between series last year, you’d know that I was bearish on Ajayi. Despite averaging 19.1 touches per game, he totaled RB2 or better numbers just 40 percent of the time.
There’s no doubt that it takes talent to run for 200 yards in a game, something Ajayi did three times in 2016, with two of them coming against the Bills. But now that we’re entering year-four of his career, we have a large enough sample size to take a look at what he’s done outside of those three games. His career mark of 4.51 yards per carry goes down to just 3.95 yards per carry. Again, I’m not cutting him down for his 200-yard games, they were incredible, but it’s a very small piece of his career.
Still, everyone wanted that upside heading into 2017 where they invested a second-round pick on him. Over the first seven games of 2017, Ajayi racked up 138 carries for 465 yards (3.37 YPC), and 14 receptions for 67 yards, but failed to score any touchdowns. Despite ranking sixth in carries during that time, he was fantasy football’s No. 28 running back. This is extremely rare, as you’ll read shortly. He was traded to the Eagles at that time, forcing many to think that this is what was needed for his fantasy stock to soar, though I was hesitant to buy-in once again. Doug Pederson had employed a timeshare at running back up until that point, but would Ajayi make him change his ways? Ajayi finished the season with 208 carries and the No. 33 fantasy running back. It was just the third time in the last four years where there’s been a running back to total at least 200 carries, yet fail to finish as a top-24 running back. Again, 66-of-69 running backs who had received at least 200 carries finished as an RB2, at minimum. The only running backs to finish outside of that range are Ajayi 2017 (RB33), Isaiah Crowell 2017 (RB30), and Alfred Morris 2015 (RB47).
“But Mike, Ajayi played for the Dolphins, a team that was going nowhere and had a bad offensive line.” I’m not going to argue with you on that, but Kenyan Drake seemed to do pretty well when asked to carry the workload. In the end, elite talent will have to rise above the team around him, as many running backs in the past have done. Going to the Eagles where they have a great offense and offensive line, he doesn’t have to be elite, just get snaps and be competent. That’s where the questions start to roll in.
IMPORTANCE OF SNAPS
Since taking over as the head coach in Philadelphia, here’s a list of the highest snap counts among running backs in any one week:
As you can see, utility player Darren Sproles is the only running back to ever exceed 43 snaps. Some will ask for the carry totals, but just how predictive are snaps to a running back’s success? Let’s look at the league leaders from 2017.
As you can see, the only player who averaged (not topped out) less than 36 snaps per game was Alvin Kamara, who we all know broke efficiency last year. There have been just three non-Sproles running backs who have accumulated a single game with more than 37 snaps in the last two years. If you recall correctly, LeGarrette Blount was drafted as a top-30 running back last year, slightly later than the cost required to get Ajayi in 2018, which is right around the RB18-22. As a gauge, Blount averaged just 22.2 snaps per game with the Eagles in 2017 (his snaps did dip down to 16.4 per game once Ajayi arrived), and Ryan Mathews averaged 22.1 snaps per game in 2016. Before you go ahead and assume that Ajayi can be efficient enough with lesser snaps, remember that stat about 200 carries? There’s been a lot of bad teams and bad running backs who’ve seen 200 carries, but he’s one of just three to see them since 2014 and fail to finish in RB2 territory.
The craziest part about Blount’s lack of snaps is that Sproles was out almost the entire 2017 season. Corey Clement came on and somewhat filled that role, averaging 19.2 snaps per game from Week 3 through the Super Bowl. Some have jumped on Clement as a sleeper in 2018 drafts, but you shouldn’t be one of them knowing how many snaps he played with Sproles sidelined. In case you haven’t heard, Sproles is back with the team after signing a one-year deal, and early reports out of camp suggest he looks like the same player he was back in 2016. The bottom line here is that Ajayi doesn’t appear to be any closer to a heavier workload. Some will say that Blount being gone will increase the 27.2 snaps per game Ajayi averaged with the Eagles in 2017, but Sproles is a bigger impact on snaps than Blount ever was. If for some reason Sproles doesn’t make the team, then we can have a different conversation.
The positive with Ajayi and the rest of the Eagles running backs is that they’ve ranked inside the top-10 for carries in each of the last two seasons. Based on a study I did this offseason, teams tend to start passing more the longer that a head coach has been with the team, averaging 10.7 fewer rushing attempts per season. So, we can realistically project them to run the ball 370-380 times this year, or 23.8 times per game. Here are the carry splits over the last two years under Pederson:
Is it fair to say that there’s a method to the madness here, as you see Blount, Ajayi, and Mathews lumped into the same territory, likely because they were brought in for the same role. The 23.7 carries per game lines up with our projected carry mark, too. Here’s a mind-blowing stat for those projecting a big increase for Ajayi carries in 2018: During the 2017 regular season, no Eagles running back exceeded 16 carries in a single game. There were 10 running backs in the league who averaged more than 16 carries per game.
It’s fair to think that Ajayi is someone who’ll shift the numbers higher than those of Blount and Mathews, but to think that Ajayi is a generational talent who is going to force Doug Pederson to change how he runs his offense would be a mistake. Looking over how he’s used his running backs in the past, it’s fair to wonder if Ajayi even hits the 200-carry mark in 2018, though I’m willing to say he should at least get close, which means he has a solid shot to finish as a top-24 running back based on what history tells us. But if we look at Ajayi’s history, there’s no guarantee on that, and keep in mind that’s if he plays 16 games (we didn’t even talk about Ajayi’s knees in this article, either). There’s simply too much risk built into his current ADP to draft him, though I wouldn’t have an issue taking a shot on him around the RB25-28 range, as that’s what I believe is the most likely of outcomes. My 2018 projection: 208 carries, 853 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns, 31 targets, 22 receptions, 172 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown