Fantasy Football: Jay Ajayi Will Be a Top-5 Running Back in 2017
The NFL offseason is generally full of puff pieces from team beat writers complimenting a player's offseason improvement or how a coaching staff plans to increase a player's workload in the coming year.
Like many others, Jay Ajayi has been the subject of a number of complimentary reports this offseason. Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen have both been quoted gushing about Ajayi's improvement and how they plan to give him upwards of 350 carries in 2017.
ESPN's James Walker has even projected that Ajayi could put up 1,900 total yards this season if he stays healthy.
While the comments from Gase and Christensen are pretty standard coach speak at this time of year, Walker's projection is a little eyebrow-raising. Some beat writers may set lofty expectations, but if Walker's projection comes true, Ajayi would join elite company in 2017.
So, in 2017, will we be talking about Ajayi in the same tier as Johnson and Elliott? There are a number of factors that say we will.
A Breakout Season in 2016
After not dressing for Week 1, Ajayi went on to play sparingly during the first four weeks of the 2016 season. Through the quarter mark of the season, Ajayi had just 18 carries for 75 yards.
In Week 5, Ajayi was elevated to the starting role, and he had a pedestrian-like game against the Tennessee Titans, going for 42 yards and a touchdown. But it was in Week 6 when Ajayi really got everyone's attention.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ajayi had 204 yards and 2 scores on 25 carries. It would be the first of three 200-yard games for Ajayi -- he was the only running back to have three such games on the year.
Despite the limited playing time early in the year Ajayi finished fourth in the league in rushing with 1,272 yards and averaged 4.89 yards per carry. He added 151 receiving yards, putting him at 1,430 total yards on the year. But looking at only the the 12 games in which he started, Ajayi averaged 115.75 rushing yards and scored 12 times.
While Ajayi's raw statistics were impressive, he also fared well by our Net Expected Points metric here at numberFire. Net Expected Points, or NEP, is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. For more on NEP, check out our glossary.
Among the 19 backs with at least 200 carries last year year, Ajayi ranked fourth in Rushing NEP per play, rubbing shoulders with some big dogs. In the same subset, he ranked 10th in Rushing Success Rate, which is the percentage of carries that resulted in a positive NEP gain.
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The only backs more impressive than Ajayi on a per-carry basis, according to our numbers, were Zeke, LeSean McCoy, and Devonta Freeman. While Ajayi owned the lowest Rushing Success Rate of those five backs, he came in right behind David Johnson (44.03% and DeMarco Murray (44.03%), so he still fared pretty well.
Offensive Line Woes
Ajayi's 2016 production is even more impressive when you consider the state of the Dolphins' offensive line.
Football Outsiders graded Miami's run blocking as the 22nd-best line in 2016, and according to Pro Football Focus, more than 70% of Ajayi's rushing production came after contact, which was the second-most in the league. Only Jonathan Stewart had a higher percentage (72.7%).
While the Dolphins offensive line graded out in the bottom half of the league last year, there's reason to believe it may improve in 2017.
It mostly revolves around the health of center Mike Pouncey. Pouncey missed 12 games last year, and he's missed 17 in the last three years combined. He hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2012.
But in the five games started by Pouncey in 2016 -- against the Titans, Steelers, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, and Los Angeles Chargers -- Ajayi averaged 5.9 yards per carry. In two of those games, Ajayi went for 200-plus yards.
Thus far, offseason reports have been positive on Pouncey, and his status will be important to watch throughout training camp.
Who Else Can Run in Miami?
On an offense that we are projecting to be the 13th-best in 2017, Ajayi's potential production is further bolstered by the lack of competition that he faces in the backfield.
Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake will return this year, but despite Ajayi seeing limited playing time in the first four weeks, he ended up accounting for 73% of the Dolphins' running back carries in 2016. Combined, Drake and Williams saw just 19% of the team's running back carries.
Ajayi was also the preferred red zone back, handling 56.4% of touches inside the 20-yard line and 43.8% inside the 5. Williams did vulture three scores from within the red zone, but he did so on only nine carries, which amounted to 16.4% of the total red zone carries by running backs.
While projecting 350 carries for Ajayi in 2017 may be a stretch, something close to 300 -- a number only Zeke eclipsed in 2016 -- is well within reach. After being named the starter last season, Ajayi averaged 20 carries per game from Week 5 on. Over a full 16-game season, that would come out to 320 carries.
Last season, Ajayi finished as RB11 in both standard and points-per-reception leagues. Over the final 12 weeks of the season, once he had the lead gig, Ajayi was the RB7 in both scoring formats.
Now, where to draft Ajayi in 2017?
Average Draft Position (ADP) data has Ajayi going as early as the late first round, but you're likely to find him available in the early second. In MFL10s, Ajayi is, on average, the 19th player off the board (RB9), but in redraft formats, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ajayi is the 12th player drafted (RB7).
He's currently lumped into the second tier of running backs, with the likes of McCoy, Freeman, Murray, Melvin Gordon, and Jordan Howard. Of those backs, don't be surprised if Ajayi ends up being the best of the bunch this season.
Ajayi was one of the most impressive running backs in the league last year. With an improved offensive line and a secure workload, he should be able to build upon last year's breakout performance and continue to ascend the running back ranks in 2017.