Fantasy Football: Jay Ajayi Is a Steal at His Current Draft Cost
Jay Ajayi didn't make much of an impact as a rookie, tallying only 49 carries over 9 games for the Miami Dolphins. The team clearly liked what they saw, though, and the former fifth-round pick stepped into a feature role in 2016, notching 260 carries.
There was some buzz around Ajayi heading into that season, and he was being taken as the 36th running back off the board, according to MyFantasyLeague's average draft position (ADP) data. After a year of being the feature back, the fantasy community got even more excited, and 2017 saw him go as RB8 at an ADP of 21.0.
However, his situation changed drastically midway through the year, when he was traded to a Philadelphia Eagles squad that already had LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement, and both were seeing significant work in the backfield.
From Weeks 9 through 16, Ajayi only finished as the RB30. The change in scenery and shaky production have soured drafters significantly, and depending on where you look, he's going anywhere from RB20 (ESPN) or RB21 (MFL10s) to RB25 (MyFantasyLeague).
But this year, Ajayi stands to see a significant workload while playing in a high-powered offense, and that leaves him significantly underpriced in 2018 fantasy drafts.
Ajayi's Workload in Philly
It's volume over everything, especially at the running back position.
Ajayi's first few games as an Eagle saw him play second-fiddle to Blount. He saw 27.4% of the team's running back carries and played 29.0% of the offensive snaps, compared to 42.5% of the carries and 34.0% of the snaps for Blount. Even Clement (31.0%) out-snapped Ajayi.
From Week 14 to the end of the season, we saw a drastic shift, though. Ajayi was rested (along with a few other starters) in Week 17, so we will remove that game from our sample.
From Weeks 14 to 16, Ajayi dominated the backfield touches in Philly, with a 55.4% share of the carries and 43.8% share of the targets. That came on a 47.0% snap rate. After Week 17, the hefty workload continued into the playoffs for Ajayi, with a 54.6% share of carries and 40.0% share of targets among Eagles backs.
So combining those samples, from the time the Eagles decided to start featuring Ajayi until the end of their Super Bowl-winning season, this is how the touches shook out in the backfield. Opportunities are defined as rushes plus targets, and the percentages are each player's share of the workload among running backs.
For an idea of how that workload for Ajayi stacks up against other backs around the league, there were only 12 backs to see at least a 50.0% share of rushes and 40.0% share of targets in the 2017 regular season. A 52.41% opportunity market share would also have ranked 17th.
Ajayi's Future Workload
There's a chance that Sproles is a total non-factor, as a 35-year-old player who has relied on speed and explosiveness coming off a torn ACL. And there's already word that he may see significantly fewer offensive snaps. So he is not exactly in a favorable spot, but even if we account for him picking up a significant workload, that isn't particularly concerning for Ajayi.
Sproles' role would come predominantly on third downs, where he saw 18.2% of his opportunities in 2016, and that's not where we've seen Ajayi get much work anyway.
Again, excluding Week 17, from Week 9 on, only 9.7% of Ajayi's opportunities came on third down. Comparing that to Wendell Smallwood's 20.0% or Clement's 17.9% rate, those guys have a lot more to lose with Sproles' return. Blount saw even fewer of his opportunities on third down, at only 8.3%. This positions Ajayi well to inherit a large portion of Blount's first- and second-down workload.
From Week 14 on, Ajayi saw 72.0% of the running back opportunities that didn't go to Blount, and if he picks up a chunk even close to that, he would likely push for somewhere near the 250-to-300 carry range this season.
Now that the most important factor has been examined, we can get into efficiency.
At numberFire, we use an efficiency metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures how many expected points a player contributes to their team's total on a given play. It accounts for field position, down and distance to go.
By this measure, Ajayi has consistently outperformed his stablemates in Rushing NEP per play through his young NFL career.
With an edge like that, it is no surprise that he quickly overtook Blount as quickly as he did. It's also easy to see why he stands a great chance to continue proving he's worth as a lead back to the coaching staff.
Benefits of Being an Eagle
Volume is key. Mixing volume with efficiency is a nice bonus, but combining both of those with a position in a high-powered offense makes things even better.
It's no secret that teams run the ball more when they win, and last year the Eagles had a 1.13 pass-to-run ratio in wins compared to a 2.25 ratio in their three losses. They're expected to do plenty of winning again this season, too, meaning there should continue to be plenty of rushing volume up for grabs.
Looking at the betting lines available on Bovada, there is only one team with a higher over/under for regular season wins than the Eagles (New England), while the only other team with a total that matches Philly's 10.5 is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are bigger underdogs to hit the over than the Eagles. So, effectively, those lines are telling us that the Eagles are the team most likely to win the second-most games in the league this season.
Oddsmakers also love their offense. 5Dimes has the over/under on their points scored set at 406.5. That is the third-highest in the NFL, and the over is also a sizable favorite there at -150.
More scoring obviously means the possibility for more touchdowns, and over the last five years, there has been a nice correlation between a team's total points and the red zone snaps they have run.
Blount and Ajayi combined for 67.6% of Eagles backs' red zone carries from Weeks 9 to 16, and Ajayi stands to see plenty of scoring opportunities if things go according to plan in Philadelphia.
The fact that the Eagles lost Blount and did nothing to address the running back position is a strong indicator that they are happy with what they have at the position. Ajayi's consistent edge in efficiency over his teammates, combined with the fact that the team made him the lead back last year, provides even more optimism for him as the team's lead runner.
The fact that he largely plays a different role than Corey Clement means that Clement is not only unlikely to be much of a threat to Ajayi's touches, but that he also isn't a threat to soak up much of the work that Blount's departure leaves open.
The promise of big volume and ample scoring opportunities gives Ajayi both a great floor and ceiling in fantasy football this season. Going outside the top 15 to 20 backs in most drafts, he is a terrific value in the late third to early fourth round.