Jay Ajayi Has One of the Best Floor/Ceiling Combos in Fantasy
It’s hard to unsee back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. That's a big part of the reason why Jay Ajayi is one of the most polarizing players in the first few rounds of 2017 fantasy football drafts, With the Dolphins' backfield to himself, is there still room for growth? Or is the offensive line what we should really focus our analysis on — especially with his fade down the stretch?
With legitimate knee concerns coming out of Boise State, Ajayi was so highly requested player in 2016 that I made my first limited-sample exception. Even though many of my concerns with Ajayi revolved around Miami’s infatuation with adding another back (who ended up being Arian Foster), he was definitely a miss for the methodology last season. This year, Ajayi is going in the second round of fantasy drafts, so I'm eager to dig back in to the tape.
Taking into consideration all his big plays, how efficient was Ajayi relative to his offensive line? Can he become more of a factor in the passing game after reportedly looking “much smoother” running routes this offseason?
Ajayi's Rushing Expectation charting, which balances metrics with film evaluation (one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football), will provide some clues as to how to attack the Dolphins backfield in fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Jay Ajayi
Ajayi is intense, aggressive, and runs with reckless abandon at times. He displays unique physicality in one-on-one situations, showing elite power through contact. His burst is good, and his acceleration when hitting holes between the tackles is above average.
In 2015, Ajayi showed the tendency to bounce outside right when a defense would clog up his intended lane, but he seemed to address some of those immature decisions in 2016.
Ajayi is an elite finisher with unique balance through contact, which can mostly be attributed to a violent running style — and power — that greatly exceeds his size. Ajayi is the kind of player that is looking to send a message on every play, running over anyone in his path while absorbing contact from various angles. He also has a fantastic stiff-arm. He changes direction quickly, relying on jump cuts, spin moves, and dips to make it through first contact. Unsurprisingly, Ajayi posted yards-after-contact averages in the 86th and 98th percentile in the past two seasons, respectively.
Ajayi’s involvement in the passing game was heavily skewed towards the inside and outside areas of the field close to the offensive line, but contrary to popular belief, he is a very good pass-catcher. He makes adjustments over his shoulder, and shows great concentration. Admittedly, his opportunities were limited (he had just 18 targets in the 2016 sample I charted), but I see room for growth — especially given how poor Kenyan Drake has been in pass protection.
Expected Success Rate is the signature metric of Rushing Expectation, and highlights the fact that not every Success Rate is created equal. (If you are new to this series, you can learn more about this metric in the introduction article.) Let’s see how efficient Ajayi performed relative to his offensive line:
The Dolphins' overall Expected Success Rate on rushing attempts in 2016 was 42.4 percent, well below the 46.3 percent NFL average. The offensive line was even worse in terms of Adjusted Reception Yards (dead last in the NFL), setting the bar low for Ajayi’s expectation in the receiving game.
Despite limited help from his blocking, Ajayi was successful as a runner.
Ajayi finished with a 54th percentile Expectation Score on the ground and a 51st percentile Expectation Score through the air in 2016. Objectively, I could see room for growth with Ajayi’s efficiency if his offensive line can give him even slightly more than it did down the stretch.
Another positive indicator for Ajayi is that his 2016 season was far better than his 2015 season. He faced eight or more in the box much more frequently last year, and his Success Rate in loaded-box situations was well above average:
Ajayi has above-average athletic ability and good agility behind the line of scrimmage, which he puts to use when his offensive line doesn’t create large holes. He shortens his steps when he sees trouble, and is patient enough to wait for creases.
The biggest problem I see on film with Ajayi is his average mental processing skills. His football IQ is underwhelming. I love Ajayi's ceiling, but he sure takes a lot of unnecessary chances that can end up being counterproductive.
Overall, charting Ajayi has provided three noteworthy takeaways:
Ajayi is one of the best running backs in the league at making plays after contact.
The Dolphins provide Ajayi with below-average blocking, so he has room for growth in regard to efficiency.
Ajayi has untapped upside in the passing game.
Do the Rest of the Dolphins' Running Backs Matter in Fantasy Football?
A large part of my bearish view on Ajayi last season had to do with Foster, and, you know, Miami trying to sign restricted free agent C.J. Anderson. In hindsight, betting on a 30-year-old runner like Foster was #notsharp.
I won’t make that same mistake in 2017.
Admittedly, it is much easier to be down on Ajayi’s competition when it consists of Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake. Both of them are good in the passing game, but Williams’ 9 red zone targets are likely to negatively regress with the signing of Julius Thomas, and Drake can’t pass-protect.
Intuitively, the narrative of getting Ajayi “more involved” in the passing game seems much more likely given his skill set. Sometimes fantasy isn’t as hard as we make it out to be: when there is a good player whose only competition is not-so-good players, the good player will probably get the ball a lot.
Jay Ajayi's 2017 Fantasy Outlook
A Dolphins beat reporter recently said that “getting Ajayi to 20 carries per game might be tough.” It’s a good thing beat reporters don’t get paid to make projections; Ajayi averaged over 20 carries from Week 5 on, and the Dolphins averaged 30.1 points in games which Ajayi had at least 18 carries. And even if I wanted to entertain the aforementioned absurd idea, red zone touches should be all Ajayi this year. His 10 attempts inside the 5 last season accounted for 71.4 percent of the team's attempts from that distance (eighth-highest in the NFL).
Ajayi gets knocked because a lot of his production came on big plays — which also count in fantasy, by the way — but the difference between Ajayi and someone like Isaiah Crowell is that Ajayi is the only game in town. Like Crowell, Ajayi is an underrated asset in the passing game.
Volume, quality of touches, and living off big plays are far less of a concern at this time than the Dolphins offensive line, which is still clearly still an issue. While the Dolphins brought in run blocking tight end Anthony Fasano, one of their top lineman from a year ago, Branden Albert, is gone. Miami will trot out the likes of Laremy Tunsil, Ted Larsen, Jermon Bushrod, Anthony Steen, and Mike Pouncey. Woof. Poor offensive line play could have been a factor in what ended up being an uneven performance down the stretch for Ajayi last season after his 200-yard games in Weeks 6 and 7. Regardless, Pouncey’s health is the clear X factor here, so be sure and keep an eye on that in training camp before taking on heavy exposure to Ajayi with a premium pick.
That said, even with a mid-second-round ADP, Jay Ajayi has a safe floor and plenty of upside. He could easily look like a bargain when it's all said and done.
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