To Be or Not to Be: The Jay Ajayi Fantasy Football Question

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April showers bring May flowers. They also bring great fantasy football debates.

After identifying the passionate division among the fantasy community on the Tevin Coleman or Isaiah Crowell argument, we now turn our attention to one of the most polarizing individual players for the 2017 fantasy football season: running back Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins.

After the Dolphins signed free agent Arian Foster last summer, we were quick to hear rumblings from Dolphins’ camp that Jay Ajayi was unhappy. This led to Ajayi sitting at home during Week One as a healthy scratch by Miami head coach Adam Gase. Many wondered if Ajayi would even finish the season in a Dolphins’ uniform.

Then came Arian Foster’s injury, subsequent retirement, and a total change in the Jay Ajayi narrative.

To Be or Not to Be: The Jay Ajayi Fantasy Football Question

After creating another Twitter poll, it became apparent the fantasy community was split on Jay Ajayi’s 2017 fantasy value.

 

Was 2016 a sign of things to come, or will Ajayi simply join the one year wonder list of Zac Stacy, Peyton Hillis, and Ickey Woods?

It all makes for the perfect fantasy football argument.

Let’s outline both sides, and provide a verdict.

(All statistics from PlayerProfiler).

PRO:  Jay Ajayi will be a Top Fantasy Running Back in 2017

In a fantasy season that produced a true running back renaissance, Miami running back Jay Ajayi was one of the NFL’s best in 2016. After serving as Arian Foster’s backup for the first four games, Ajayi grabbed the starting tailback spot in Week Five and never looked back.

The 24-year-old Boise State product was a true workhouse for Miami, ranking ninth among all NFL running backs with 260 carries (17.3 per game). Despite starting only 12 games, Ajayi finished fourth in the league with 1,272 rushing yards. His violent, downhill running style punished opposing defenses. Ajayi accumulated 484 yards after contact, which ranked third among all running backs. On a per game basis, he averaged 32.3 yards after contact, ranking second at the position.

The true breakout for Ajayi came in Weeks Six and Seven, when he rushed for over 200 yards in consecutive home games against Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Ajayi torched both teams for a combined 423 yards and three total touchdowns. His game against Buffalo featured a brilliant 53-yard fourth quarter run from his own end zone that sealed the Dolphins’ victory.

Following those two performances, Ajayi faced the stiff run defense of the New York Jets. At that time, the Jets boasted the number one overall rushing defense in the league. In possibly his best performance of the season, Ajayi rushed for 111 yards, one touchdown, and even caught three passes. Against that Jets top run defense, Ajayi rattled off seven runs of nine yards or more, including this first quarter 20 yard touchdown run.

Ajayi’s breakout season didn’t end there. He added a third 200 yard rushing game in a Week 16 overtime win at Buffalo. Ajayi had already accumulated 122 rushing yards before overtime, and then added 87 more yards in the extra period including this fantastic 57 yard run to set up the game winning field goal. Ajayi finished with 209 yards, becoming just the fourth NFL player to ever rush for at least 200 yards in three games in the same season. He joined Tiki Barber (2005, N.Y. Giants), Earl Campbell (1980, Houston) and O.J. Simpson (1973, Buffalo) with this incredible road performance in late December.

Jay Ajayi’s current ADP is 27.94 making him the 10th running back off the board in MFL10 drafts. He is one of the true workhorses left in the modern NFL, and head coach Adam Gase has already mentioned the idea of Ajayi getting 350 carries this season.

The only area Ajayi really needed to improve was as a receiver in the passing game. His 27 total receptions ranked 38th among all NFL running backs. But already the Dolphins coaching staff is starting to rave about Ajayi’s newfound pass catching ability.

After a great 2016 season, Ajayi will take an even bigger step forward this year. He is a running back workhorse behind a solid offensive line, with a creative offensive mind in Adam Gase that will make him an integral part of the passing game. Ajayi is a steal at his current round three value, and will provide a top five fantasy running back floor this season for any fantasy owner.

 

CON:  Avoid Drafting Jay Ajayi in All Formats

We have all seen this narrative before.

A young running back has an unexpected production explosion, only to be overdrafted the following year and crush the hearts of fantasy football owners everywhere.

Who can forget the 24-year-old Peyton Hillis in 2010, running for 1,177 yards in just 14 games? Most people don’t remember that Hillis actually recorded 61 receptions that year and had 13 total touchdowns. It was an exceptional overall season, that led to Hillis having a 26.34 ADP in 2011, only to finish as the RB39.

For those that tout Jay Ajayi’s great 2016 season as a sign of things to come, please think again. Ajayi accomplished some historic feats last season, but 2017 will be a completely different story.

Ajayi’s season needs to be broken down into three parts.

Part I:  In the first five games (including not traveling with the team to Seattle in Week One), Ajayi averaged a mediocre 3.8 yards per carry. He failed to rush for more than 42 yards, including Week Five when he was the actual starter.

Part II:  Miami’s offensive line was completely healthy for only four games last season. In those four games, Ajayi rushed for 608 yards, which represents 48 percent of his seasonal total. He averaged an insane 6.2 yards per rush during this time. Ajayi also scored four rushing touchdowns which was exactly half of his seasonal total.

Part III:  In the 11 games without a completely healthy offensive line, Ajayi averaged 4.1 yards per carry and only broke 100 rushing yards in Week 16 at Buffalo (full disclosure: another 200 yard game). The Bills were already eliminated from the playoffs, and had the fourth worst rushing defense allowing over 133 yards per game.

Now let’s look at how Jay Ajayi fared against specific defensive fronts, and compare him to running backs with similar fantasy ADPs.

Name Light Front Carry Rate Rank YPC vs. Light Front Rank Stacked Front Carry Rate Rank YPC vs. Stacked Front Rank
Jay Ajayi 40.80% 70th 5.00 33rd 2.70% 70th 1.1 54th
Melvin Gordon 28.00% 110th 4.4 49th 11.40% 38th 2.2 25th
Isaiah Crowell 34.00% 94th 5.7 17th 3.00% 93rd -0.3 74th
LeSean McCoy 23.10% 122nd 5.9 10th 7.30% 64th 4.7 6th
DeMarco Murray 21.80% 124th 5.1 31st 11.30% 39th 2.5 23rd

 

Ajayi saw a light defensive front (less than seven defensive lineman plus linebackers) in over 40 percent of his carries, yet only ranked 33rd among all running backs in those situations with 5.0 yards per carry. He only faced a stacked defensive front (more than seven defensive lineman and linebackers) 2.7 percent of the time which ranked 70th among all running backs. In those situations Ajayi only managed 1.1 yards per carry, an indictment of his lack of elusiveness and poor offensive line play.

Ajayi did rank ninth among running backs in evaded tackles last year, but that was a result of his high volume of carries. Dividing his evaded tackles by total carries produces his Juke Rate, which at 24 percent only ranked 31st among running backs.

Finally, let’s not forget Ajayi was also an injury concern coming out of Boise State. He tore his ACL in 2011, then suffered a hamstring injury early in the 2015 NFL preseason, and missed much of that regular season with a fractured rib.

As Winston Churchill reminded us, we should always learn from the past. And as we saw with one year wonders like Peyton Hillis, Zac Stacy, and Ickey Woods, it is a huge fantasy mistake to overvalue one season. With a current ADP of 27.94, Jay Ajayi should be avoided in all fantasy football formats.

 

Verdict

Jay Ajayi was a fantasy football league winner in 2016. He had four fantastic games, but 11 pedestrian fantasy performances. While Adam Gase has professed he will be involved in the passing game, the Dolphins already have a productive Damien Williams and 2016 third round pick Kenyan Drake as superior pass catching options.

Ajayi is not elusive and will run violently behind a poor Miami offensive line. Ryan Tannehill is a mediocre quarterback at best, and opposing defenses will certainly not provide as many light fronts as last season. At his third round ADP, Jay Ajayi is currently overvalued and should be avoided in all fantasy football formats.

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