Is Boise State's Jay Ajayi Really the Next Marshawn Lynch?
As the frenzy of the NFL free agency period begins to die down, all eyes now turn to the upcoming NFL draft at the end of April. A number of teams that swung and struck out in free agency at the running back position and now have glaring needs to fill will be looking to this event for a new young and promising star to add to their rosters.
While many believe the honor of being selected as the top running back in this season's draft is a two-back race between Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley, one running back quietly sneaking up draft boards is Boise State's Jay Ajayi.
Drawing comparisons to Seattle's Marshawn Lynch with his size and determined running style, Ajayi has been making scouts enamored with his all-around abilities at the running back position. Some have even gone as far as saying he deserves consideration as the second running back taken off the board this April. But are they right?
Jay Ajayi put up an impressive collegiate career in three years at Boise State. On the heels of an outstanding sophomore season, Jay Ajayi followed this up with an amazing junior season that showcased the gamut of skills at his disposal.
|Year||Class||G||Rush Att||Rush Yds||Avg||TD||Rec||Rec Yds||Avg||TD|
While clearly gifted enough to put up impressive yardage and scoring totals at the collegiate level, some have questioned the quality of the opponents Jay collected these stats against. Playing in the weaker Mountain West Conference, some wonder whether Ajayi has the talents necessary to excel in the NFL.
To assess Jay Ajayi's prospects in the pros, it is therefore necessary to breakdown his skills and talents on a point-by-point basis, using both his body of work at Boise State alongside his metrics from the most recent Combine.
As a young child Jay Ajayi grew up playing soccer in England, and his skills on the pitch had many projecting him to be a star with the potential to play for the Nigerian national soccer team someday. But his family's move to the United States in the fourth grade prompted a sudden switch from fútbol to football.
Because of this unconventional background, Ajayi has developed superior balance and footwork that has translated into remarkable success on the football field. Ajayi is incredibly nimble for just about any running back, let alone a player of his size. His feet are consistently in line with hips, allowing him to navigate his way through his blocks as seen here and here.
Perhaps even more impressive are the great, explosive lateral cuts he makes that allow him to change direction on a dime as demonstrated here. This allows him to get a step on the defense on runs to the outside as shown here and here.
He also operates very well in the open field and shows great instincts. His incredible athleticism and agility are on full display here as he shakes and bakes his way past a helpless linebacker in coverage.
When measuring his agility by way of his Combine numbers from the 3-Cone Drill and 20-Yard Shuttle, we see that his numbers fall within the same range (15%) as some of the game's most elite athletes.
|Jay Ajayi||6' 0||221||7.10||4.10|
|David Wilson||5' 10||206||7.09||4.12|
|C.J. Anderson||5' 8||224||7.15||4.12|
|Danny Woodhead||5' 7.5||197||7.03||4.20|
|Ahmad Bradshaw||5' 10||198||6.70||4.09|
|DeMarco Murray||6' 1||213||7.28||4.18|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||5' 10||221||6.84||4.21|
Power and Explosiveness
Jay Ajayi also demonstrates excellent power and explosiveness on his runs. His size and strength combined with a low running style allows him to maintain balance and bounce off arm tackles to churn out yards after contact as shown here, here, and here.
Again, some have compared his running style and display of explosiveness and power to that of Marshawn Lynch -- and rightfully so. A look at his Combine metrics measuring these skills turns up some favorable comparisons.
|Jay Ajayi||6' 0||221||19||39"||121"|
|Danny Woodhead||5' 7.5||197||20||38"||121"|
|Joseph Addai||5' 11||214||18||38.5"||125"|
|Ryan Mathews||6' 1||218||19||36"||121"|
|Latavius Murray||6' 2.5||223||22||36"||124"|
|Isaiah Crowell||5' 11||224||23||38"||117"|
|Marshawn Lynch||5' 11"||215||20||35.5"||125"|
Indeed, amongst players measuring within 15% of Jay's marks in all three events gauging power and explosiveness (Bench, Vertical Leap, and Broad Jump), a number of notable names appear including Joseph Addai, Latavius Murray, Isaiah Crowell, and of course, Marshawn Lynch.
From this we can see that if Jay Ajayi can't use his quick feet to dance his way around a defender, he can use his size and power to go through whoever is in his way.
One area of Jay Ajayi's game that I did have a concern with -- albeit a very minor one -- is his speed.
Jay Ajayi demonstrated good, but not elite speed at the collegiate level. When ranked against the 441 running backs to participate in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine the past 16 seasons, Jay ranks in the 47th percentile -- and just in the 53rd percentile when ranked amongst players within 5% of his weight.
This average speed causes Jay Ajayi to get caught from behind on longer runs and explains his 5.3 yards per carry average from his junior season -- which, while good, still places him behind other stand out backs in his class including Melvin Gordon (7.5 yards per carry). This also causes problems on runs to the outside as he does not always make it around the corner consistently.
Despite this, one encouraging thing to note is that a number of big names with demonstrable success as lead backs in the NFL can be found with speeds comparable to Jay Ajayi's 40-yard dash time (within 5%).
|Jay Ajayi||6' 0||221||4.57|
|Marion Barber||6' 0||221||4.53|
|Giovani Bernard||5' 8||202||4.53|
|Christine Michael||5' 10||220||4.54|
|Brian Westbrook||5' 9||200||4.57|
|Eddie Lacy||5' 11||231||4.58|
|Rashad Jennings||6' 1||231||4.59|
|Le'Veon Bell||6' 1||230||4.6|
|C.J. Anderson||5' 8||224||4.6|
With names such as Brian Westbrook, Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, and C.J. Anderson on this list, it's clear that top speed as measured by the 40-yard dash is not the be-all, end-all metric to determine a player's success in the league. And in the end, just like these other great backs, Jay Ajayi's ability to excel in other skills and traits more than make up for his lackluster performance in this metric.
Translating Into an Every-Down Back
Growing up in Texas, Jay Ajayi watched and studied one of the all-time great three-down backs in Emmitt Smith. Jay has stated on a few occassions the great influence Smith has had on his game, and how he grew up modelling his playing style after the Cowboy Hall of Famer.
Further, Jay matches Marshawn in terms of size and power, and while he is a bit slower in terms of top-end speed, Ajayi bests Lynch in agility.
But when taking his full set of measurables into account, his closest comparable is actually Broncos breakout star from last season, C.J. Anderson -- who, despite only starting seven games last season managed to rank sixth amongst all running backs in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). While measuring in a bit larger than Anderson in both height and weight, Ajayi still manages either to match or to beat Anderson in every other Combine metric.
|Name||Ht||Wt||Arms||Hands||40 yd||Bnch||Vert||Broad||3Cone||20 ss|
|Jay Ajayi||6' 0"||221||32"||10"||4.57||19||39"||121"||7.1||4.1|
|C.J. Anderson||5' 8"||224||30"||9"||4.6||17||32"||119"||7.15||4.12|
|Marshawn Lynch||5' 11"||215||4.46||20||35.5"||125"||4.58|
These favorable comparisons to two star NFL backs extends beyond their athletic profiles. Just like Lynch and Anderson, Ajayi demonstrates the on-field skills to operate as an every-down, workhorse back.
Ajayi shows great vision, and can operate as a downhill runner between the tackles when asked of him as shown here. In the passing game Ajayi displays soft hands, and uses his 10-inch hands reliably to secure targets thrown his way. He's also shown excellent after the catch ability as seen here. In this clip we also see he can adjust well to errant throws and has experience lining up out wide. Finally, while rookies tend to struggle in pass protection, Ajayi showed excellent instincts in this facet of the game during his time at Boise State with superb skills in blitz recognition.
This versatile, all-around skill set translated into 1,823 yards on the ground, 535 yards through the air, and 32 total touchdowns in his final season at Boise State. He also demonstrated his durability, as he handled a very heavy workload to amass these numbers with more than 28 touches per game.
Ajayi's skills and ability to operate as an every-down back makes him an attractive candidate to be selected on day two of the draft by a number of franchises. This includes the San Diego Chargers, who lost lead back Ryan Mathews to the Eagles this offseason and whose offensive style heavily utilizes the pass catching abilities of their running backs. The Cowboys and Jaguars also have clear needs at the running back position after recently losing out on the DeMarco Murray sweepstakes.
With a number of teams still in desperate need of a true lead back for next season, and Jay's ability to fill said needs, Ajayi finds his stock on the rise and is a near lock to have his name called before the end of the second round.