Is Jay Ajayi a Threat to Lamar Miller?

Is Lamar Miller's starting role in jeopardy after the great start from rookie Jay Ajayi?

Jay Ajayi was widely considered to be a top-three talent in the 2015 NFL draft, behind only Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. He was a creative and powerful between-the-tackles runner with the speed to get to the edge and an exceptional pass catcher out of the backfield, profiling as a true workhorse back.

But reports about a degenerative knee condition surfaced in the spring, causing his draft stock to plummet until he was finally selected in the fifth round by the Miami Dolphins. The knee injury is expected to limit the length of his NFL career, but wasn't viewed by most to be an injury that will affect him in the short term.

Similar to Bryce Brown, Ajayi is undisciplined as a runner, with an eye for open space that often gets him into trouble. But in the open field, Ajayi is a Marshawn Lynch type of runner, violent and aggressive with the speed and power to be a game-changing weapon for the Dolphins. His athletic comparables include players like Lynch and Marion Barber, who ran with a similar violent style:

Name Hght Wght 40 yd Bnch Vert Broad 20 ss
Isaiah Crowell 5' 11" 224 4.57 23 38" 117" 4.56
Jay Ajayi 6' 0" 221 4.57 19 39" 121" 4.1
Larry Johnson 6' 1" 228 4.55 19      
Marion Barber 6' 0" 221 4.53 20 40" 127" 4.17
Knowshon Moreno 5' 11" 217 4.5 25 35½" 115" 4.27
Chris Ivory 5' 11½" 222 4.48   36" 119" 4.6
Marshawn Lynch 5' 11" 215 4.46 20 35½" 125" 4.58
Carnell Williams 5' 11" 217 4.43 19 35½" 118" 4.17
Deuce McAllister 6' 1" 222 4.41 20 37½"  

Unfortunately, training camp wasn't kind to Ajayi, with pass protection issues and inconsistency leading the coaches to call him a disappointment. An injury caused the Dolphins to place the rookie on short-term injured reserve, but in his return to the field the past two weeks, he's flashed the immense talent that had many comparing him to the Seahawks star running back. But can he really pose a threat to current Miami starter Lamar Miller?

The Situation

Lamar Miller is really good! I promise. No matter what I say from this point on, please know that I really think he's good. 

But the coaches in Miami have always seemed to dislike the former Hurricane, forcing him to share carries with the ineffective Daniel Thomas in 2013 and start the 2014 season behind Knowshon Moreno until an injury forced the Dolphins to feature Miller.

Yet, despite no real competition in the backfield last season, Miller only received 216 carries all year and never had more than 19 in a game. While he was effective as a runner in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), posting a Rushing NEP per rush of 0.06 (sixth in the NFL in 2014), the team seemed reticent to rely on him as a focal point of their offense. The former Hurricanes back is a quicker player who doesn't run with the power the coaching staff seemingly prefers, which makes Ajayi, a naturally more powerful back, a great option to supplant Miller as the primary back for in Miami.

So far in 2015, Miller has once again been an efficient runner and receiver, especially once head coach Joe Philbin was fired and replaced by Dan Campbell, who has preached physicality and ball control. His Rushing NEP per rush of 0.11 is on par with Todd Gurley (0.10), yet for some reason his coaches don't seem inclined to feed him the ball even remotely comparable to Gurley or other "feature" backs in the NFL. 

It's worth noting that Miller has found much of his rushing value in two massive games against the disastrous Titans and Texans, totaling 288 of his 521 rushing yards in those games alone. In his seven other contests, he has averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and failed to run for more than 55 yards. 

Yet even as his running efficiency has waned in the past few weeks, his receiving numbers have skyrocketed, and Miller has showcased his versatility out of the backfield. In the last three weeks, he has more receiving yards (166) than rushing yards (102), and his value to this offense cannot be understated. 

So for the love of all that is good and holy, why do his coaches continue to restrain him as a runner? Through nine games Miller has exceeded 14 carries just twice and hasn't had 20 carries. 

Let's start putting the pieces of this inexplicable puzzle together... Miller is incredibly efficient, but coaches continue attempting to replace him with bigger, powerful backs and refuse to overwork him as a runner or feed him the ball like a feature NFL back. 

Pardon my editorializing, but this sounds a lot like what we've heard regarding players like Andre Ellington or Giovani Bernard or Shane Vereen. Whether it's injury concerns or just valuing the intensity that a power back brings, it isn't outside the realm of possibility that coaches just don't see Miller as a player who is best served with a dominant rushing workload. And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as there is another player on the roster who can add that power compliment at a similarly efficient level. Some coaches and teams just prefer (and feed) off of the intensity that a powerful, violent back can bring. 

Enter Jay Ajayi, who could make things complicated. In limited action the past two weeks, the rookie has 89 yards on just 11 touches, averaging over 8 yards in both contests and looking as powerful and explosive as advertised. His NEP numbers are fantastic as well, but difficult to assess on so few touches. With that type of success, coaches may be hard pressed to keep him off the field, especially if he profiles more as a feature runner than Miller in their minds. 

The Prognosis 

So what does that mean for Miller, who was ranked fourth in total fantasy points at his position heading into Week 10? 

The good news is that Miller has never needed a large workload or goal line runs in order to sustain value. So even if the coaches follow suit and begin increasing Ajayi's touches, Miller should be able to maintain his of his current role with only a slight loss in touches. That being said, Ajayi is a fantastic receiver, and it isn't improbable that he could steal some touches from Miller out of the backfield as well. Deficiencies as a blocker could hinder that, but it's worth keeping in mind. This isn't LeGarrette Blount

But I don't see Ajayi's emergence as the non factor that many are calling it. He is too talented for this coaching staff to ignore, and his size and power give him an element that Lamar Miller simply can't replicate. The situation could easily become comparable to the Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard situation in Cincinnati, with Ajayi getting the bulk of the carries and Miller dominating passing down situations. 

The sky is certainly not falling for Lamar Miller, and his efficiency and ability will allow him to have a major role in this offense moving forward. But Ajayi is good, and he isn't going away anytime soon. Miller is still the back to own, but it shouldn't come as a surprise if his upside becomes capped by the talented rookies emergence.