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Decoding the Eagles Backfield: Is Jay Ajayi a Workhorse?

Speaking at Assistant Coach Media Day,1 Eagles assistant head coach/running back coach Duce Staley suggested that Jay Ajayi could see his workload increase. Staley was quoted as saying:

I’m pretty sure that Jay is excited about being able to go out there and dominate and being able to be that guy. I know Doug (Pederson) is excited about it also. We’ll see.

When the Eagles acquired Ajayi, Neil Dutton noted that fantasy gamers should temper expectations during Ajayi’s adjustment period. Staley noted that Ajayi has been adept at picking up the offense, and is hopefully able to become the lead RB for the Eagles. As Cort Smith has noted, the Eagles are under rated in terms of 2017 RB Expected Points. Additionally, the departure of LeGarrette Blount frees up a significant number of RB touches.

So should we expect Ajayi to be the lead dog in a RBBC, or will he ascend to workhorse status?

Pre-Ajayi Usage

Over the first eight weeks of the season, the Eagles were intent on using Blount as their primary RB. Blount led the Eagles in ruEP (rushing expected points), and saw the bulk of his rushing work when the ruAVGMGN (average game margin when a rush attempt was registered) was within one touchdown.

Eagles Pre Ajayi Rushing

Eagles Pre Ajayi Receiving

As evidenced by his -1.3 ruAVGMGN and 0.6 reAVGMGN, the Eagles utilized Darren Sproles as the primary ball carrier when facing negative game script. Once Sproles was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Eagles’ coaching staff turned to Wendell Smallwood as their primary receiving RB.2

Eagles coaches opted to split the remaining opportunity between Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner. Over the first eight weeks of the season, the bulk of Clement’s workload came when the Eagles had, on average, a nine-point lead. It’s likely that the coaching staff was bringing Clement along slowly, given that Clement was signed as a UDFA.

Post-Ajayi Usage

However, the Eagles were not content with the state of their backfield, and opted to trade a 2018 fourth round pick for Ajayi.3 From Weeks 9-17, the Eagles minimized Blount’s role4 and expanded Clement’s.

Though squeezed for playing time, Ajayi was marginally more productive as a member of the Eagles’ RBBC than he was as a Dolphin.

Ajayi Splits

Despite joining the Eagles mid-season, the coaching staff was comfortable giving Ajayi a healthy workload. Over the seven games he played from Weeks 9-17, Ajayi garnered a similar rushing workload to Blount and a similar receiving workload to Clement.5 The biggest takeaway is that the coaching staff felt comfortable using Ajayi as a receiver with an average margin of about negative three points — that is, when trailing in highly meaningful situations.

Eagles Post Ajayi Rushing

Eagles Post Ajayi Receiving

Interestingly, the red-zone opportunity was evenly divided among three RBs.

phi-rz-rush

phi-rz-rec

 

 

It’s important to note that Clement appears to have established himself as a capable finisher. All six of Clement’s touchdowns last season came when the Eagles were in the red zone. On the other hand, Ajayi’s red-zone production was abysmal. He scored zero TDs on 10 rushing attempts, but did manage to score one receiving TD. It’s likely that Ajayi’s poor red-zone production is skewed by the small sample. As Miami’s lead RB in 2016, Ajayi scored seven rushing TDs on 32 attempts from the red zone. Provided Ajayi continues to see red-zone work, he should improve on his 2017 touchdown numbers.

Playoffs?!

Given that Ajayi only played seven regular season games as an Eagle, let’s look at how the work was divided up during the playoffs.

Eagles Playoffs Rushing

Eagles Playoffs Receiving

Ajayi saw the bulk of the rushing and receiving work in the postseason. The Eagles leaned heavily Ajayi when they led by at least a touchdown. Clement was deployed primarily as a receiving threat, but saw little to no rushing work. Interestingly, the Eagles leaned heavily on Blount when the average margin of the game was within three points.

How To Play It

Simply put, both Ajayi and Clement are solid buys for the price in best ball drafts right now. With Blount in Detroit, it’s possible that the usage split from the playoffs carries over into 2018. Although the impending return of Sproles threatens to muddy the backfield, the risk when drafting both players is adequately priced in. The MFL10 ADP app indicates that Ajayi is currently being drafted alongside Dion Lewis, and Clement’s price is in line with Nyheim Hines’. If you’re facing a crunch at RB, don’t hesitate to take a swing at either player.

newplot (4)

  1. Stop snickering, it’s a real event that actually happens! What else are we supposed to do between now and Week 1? Watch baseball?  (back)
  2. Sproles had accounted for a significant chunk of Eagles’ targets to running backs. During his time as an Eagle, Sproles has seen approximately five targets per game.  (back)
  3. The Dolphins selected Kallen Ballage with this pick.  (back)
  4. He saw 12.5 rush attempts per game prior to the Ajayi trade.  (back)
  5. Note that both Blount and Clement played eight games, whereas Ajayi played seven.  (back)
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