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Film Room: Jay Ajayi’s Record-Setting Performances

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Can you imagine being a fan of one of these hold-pat, steady-Eddie franchises? Waking up on the morning of the trade deadline without an edge-of-your-seat rumbling in your gut that your franchise is about to do something freakin’ awesome?

Cause I sure can’t.

Howie Roseman, the vacuum salesman that he is, likely isn’t welcome in the state of Florida for the crimes he’s committed in Miami. Two offseasons ago, he shipped off the poor contracts of MLB Kiko Alonso and CB Byron Maxwell en route to moving up for Carson Wentz; today, he sent over one of Philadelphia’s three fourth-round selections for 24-year-old stud running back Jay Ajayi.

There’s a reason this talented back comes at a discount: Ajayi has significant knee concerns following a college ACL injury and may have a shorter shelf life than the ideal NFL running back. With only two years left on his rookie deal, however, Ajayi is a short-term investment with a shockingly low cap number ($1.4M over the next TWO YEARS). For an Eagles team positioning themselves for a deep playoff run, Ajayi is the ideal add.

I went through a good deal of Ajayi tape to get a feel for the new Eagle back. To breakdown his skill sets, I’d like to focus on clips from a record-breaking two-game stretch for the ex-Dolphin. In Weeks 6-7 of the 2016 season–Ajayi’s second year as a pro–he became the fourth NFL rusher to put up back-to-back 200 yard games. He joins O.J. Simpson, Ricky Williams, and Earl Campbell–what one might call elite company.

Let’s get to know Jay Ajayi a little better.

Burst

On Tuesday’s episode of Locked On Eagles, I told Mike I wanted Philadelphia to target a running back with burst. The biggest void in the Eagles’ stable, among LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement, is just that: burst. They lack a running back who can generate instantaneous velocity into and through the hole, hitting it as it opens and climbing to the second level.

I love this run for a few reasons. It’s a 10-yarder (Ajayi has a tendency to rip off those 7-11 chunk runs) without much work from Ajayi, but he does his job really well. As an explosive runner that always looks to create extra yardage, he does very well to remain patient here, waiting for his puller to clear the way for him.

Also of note: this run is from shotgun. We know that Philadelphia far prefers to run current starter LeGarrette Blount from under center–and, of a similar, bruising style, Ajayi also does well under center. To whatever extent Ajayi can be successful out of both alignment, another layer of intricacy and deceit will be built into Philadelphia’s offensive scheme.

But here we’re highlighting the burst. Watch the urgency and timing with which Ajayi gets through a rapidly closing hole, protecting the football and driving through light contact. As the CB #31 comes to fill the alley, you can see how little he wants to do with Ajayi–he waits for him to arrive and catches him high, hoping to ride him down instead of actually stopping him. Ajayi takes him, and another Steeler or two, for a 4-yard ride, free of charge. That’s fun to watch.

Long Speed

Ajayi ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the Combine (at 221 lbs)–but I think his play speed is faster than that. At least, 4.67 looks a whole lot different when the man running it is as physical and tightly wrapped as Ajayi. Burst is the meat, but long speed is the potatoes: If a RB can hit the hole with velocity, but then reach a second gear and carry speed down the field, he becomes infinitely more dangerous to bust off big runs in the second level.

Yeah, Jay. Just like that.

That 13-yard stretch, from the 35 to the 48? That’s some more mouth-watering burst. But the focus on this clip is what happens afterward.

Ajayi sees and hits the hole well, picks up some good yardage–then the closing safety comes for him. With excellent contact balance and good instincts, Ajayi widens out to disrupt the safety’s angle and keeps trucking upfield.

It looks, at first glance, as if he’ll be caught by the backside pursuit. But, having crossed the 50 and regained his balance, you can see Ajayi turn on some surprising jets that shock the closing linebacker. He eats air as Ajayi blows right by and puts this game away (the Dolphins were up by 1 possession and trying to run out the clock when Ajayi ripped off this run.

Bonus points for the celebration.

Wendell Smallwood clocked a 4.47 40-yard dash (at 208 lbs) in his Draft year, though Smallwood has struggled to turn that speed into big gains in his time with Philadelphia. Blount? 4.7. What a guy.

Vision/Instincts

If you’ve kept your ear to the ground during the Ajayi transaction, you know that Dolphins HC Adam Gase felt comfortable moving on from Ajayi partially due to his creator’s mindset. Ajayi leaves the script of the running play often, looking to bust the game open with explosive runs instead of grinding out the short, between-the-tackles yardage an offense needs. Handling that balance, as a player and as a RB coach/HC in deploying that personnel, can be challenging–and it may take Philadelphia a few weeks to figure that out, especially given the loss of OT Jason Peters and questionable performance along the offensive line.

But, despite the warts, Ajayi has a fluid marriage between his eyes, brain, and body that lead to some truly exciting plays.

This is what it looks like when vision and instincts are deployed within the design of the of the play. Ajayi presses the line of scrimmage and models great flexibility and good lateral explosiveness as he works to leverage his blocker appropriately against the linebacker. He fires through the crease, already prepared to take on the incoming safety. We see great explosiveness again, as well as that wonderful strength through contact to power through two smaller tacklers and enter a footrace with now Philadelphia corner Ronald Darby.

Premier vision and instincts can take runners outside of structure (as we discussed). That’s what this looks like for Ajayi:

It’s only a 2-yard gain for Ajayi, but you can see how effortlessly he reacts to backfield pressure, then backside pursuit, in his little 1-2 jump cut duo after receiving the football. He’s able to bubble outside of the backside contain as well. Darby, once again, is left to handle Ajayi in open space, and with an assist from LB #52, manages to wrangle him down.

Would Ajayi have picked up more yardage if he got north when facing Darby? I mean, maybe–but it wouldn’t have been much, and that’s the risk you run with high-variance, creative runners like Ajayi. His propensity to freelance led to his fall from graces in Miami, and it will be something to monitor in Philadelphia, where he will likely see less touches per game.

 

 

Ben Solak has been a football fan and film junkie for all of his life, and has the pleasure of serving as a National Scout for NDT Scouting. He also covers the Philadelphia Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and co-hosts the Locked On Eagles podcast. Ben takes many things far too seriously, including fishing, Captain America, grammar, and Game Of Thrones.

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