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Why Jay Ajayi Is the Draft's Best Under-the-Radar Running Back

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IFebruary 27, 2015

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The draft conversation at running back currently revolves around the growing likelihood of the 2015 class producing one or more picks in the first round. 

Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon dominate the narrative as the top two possibilities. 

Meanwhile, the draft's safest running back—with the fewest legitimate question marks and the most promising comparables—sits silently, fully under the radar as the position's best player casual fans probably don't know. 

That running back is Boise State's Jay Ajayi. 

While Gurley continues his recovery from ACL surgery and Gordon attempts to prove he can contribute in the passing game, Ajayi brings no major red flags to the next level. His game screams NFL readiness, with dancer's feet, ideal size (6'0, 221 lbs) and certified three-down abilities.

Need a one-stop solution at running back? Ajayi is your guy. 

"Of all the backs in this draft, Ajayi might be my favorite because he can do everything you want from a back and you don't have to find a complementary back to pick up the slack for him in any one area," one AFC scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein

Translation: Ajayi, like all the NFL's top backs right now, doesn't need to leave the field in any situation. He's a legitimate No. 1 running back at the next level. 

In addition to rushing for 1,823 yards last season, Ajayi also caught 50 passes for 536 yards—becoming the first FBS running back to ever break the 1,800-yard mark rushing and 500-yard mark receiving in the same season. He also scored 32 total touchdowns for a Boise State team fully dependent on its work-horse running back. 

To be fair, collegiate stats rarely translate to any predictable NFL success. But Ajayi still checks off all the boxes, from on-the-field production to pro projection on tape and pre-draft workouts.  

Asked at the combine who he models his game after, Ajayi had many examples. 

Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch are the four guys I patterned my game after,” Ajayi said, via Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. “Their styles of play, their completeness and being on the field all three downs." 

It's easy to see all four NFL players in his game. 

Against Ole Miss in the 2014 season opener, Ajayi caught 12 passes for 83 yards and a score—flashing Forte-like receiving abilities out of the backfield. Forte hauled in a career-high 102 passes for the Chicago Bears last season. Both players use quickness underneath and soft hands to factor into the passing game. 

When running the football, Ajayi relies on vision, patience and nimble feet to find holes and sort through traffic at the second level. Murray led the NFL in rushing a season ago using almost identical traits, while Foster might have the best combination of feet and vision in the pro game. You can last a long time in the NFL with an ability to see the field, and quick feet are often the difference between a good and a great back. 

The comparison to Lynch might be the most intriguing. While not as physically dominant on every carry, some of what Lynch brings to the table is part of the Ajayi package. 

"Ajayi's running style and body type are very similar to Lynch's and Ajayi features an improving stiff arm and physicality that has become Lynch's calling card," Zierlein wrote. 

The two are most comparable in terms of elite balance, which is created by each player with a low center of gravity, wide running base and powerful, always churning legs. Lynch uses super-human balance to bounce off tacklers and create loads of yards after contact. Ajayi's short and wide running style gives him a similar ability to stay on his feet in compromising situations. 

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01: Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks carries the ball against the New England Patriots in the third quarter during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Rona
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Many will still feel compelled to compare Ajayi with former Boise State running back Doug Martin, who was taken in the first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. As a rookie, Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught nearly 50 passes.

But Charles Davis of NFL Network believes Ajayi is the better prospect. 

"I don't think (Ajayi) is Doug Martin—I like him better than Martin coming out, and Martin hit the league like a bomb but has had some injury trouble since then," Davis said, via Bryan Fischer of NFL.com.

Attractive physical comparisons are also there. 

At the combine, Ajayi posted top numbers at his position in the vertical leap (39 inches), broad jump (121 inches), 20-yard short shuttle (4.10 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.1 seconds). His 40-yard dash time was 4.57 seconds, and he finished with 19 reps on the bench press. 

RotoViz uses a number of stats and combine measurables to compare prospects. Ajayi's top comparison ended up as Steven Jackson, the big-bodied but nimble back who was drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2003. The metrics are similar for the two almost across the board, from college production to test results in Indianapolis. Another name high on the list: Lynch. 

Still, opinions on Ajayi are split. 

Matt Miller's Post-Combine RB Rankings
RankPlayerSchoolOverall
1.Todd GurleyGeorgia13
2.Duke JohnsonMiami (Fl.)37
3.Melvin GordonWisconsin37
4.T.J. YeldonAlabama47
5.Tevin ColemanIndiana54
6.Ameer AbdullahNebraska60
7.Jay AjayiBoise State61
8.David CobbMinnesota71
Source: Matt Miller, Bleacher Report

According to Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider, teams are all over the place in ranking Ajayi among his running back peers. Some have him as high as the second-best back, while others have him at No. 8 or 9. 

ESPN's Mel Kiper thinks Ajayi, who he ranks as his eighth-best back, could drop to the third day of the draft. 

“There are only four or five teams that are even thinking about a running back in the first three or four rounds, so if those teams take somebody else then Ajayi maybe drops a bit," Kiper said, via Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman. "You’re going to get bargains at running back. He can be a bargain in the fifth or sixth round.”

Ajayi could be the next great back to come from the middle rounds. The top three running backs in rushing yards from a year ago—Murray, Le'Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy—were all taken in the second round or later. In fact, of the top 13 rushers last season, only one—Lynch—was drafted in the first round. 

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Here's the question many teams will face: Would you rather have Gurley or Gordon in the first round or a back like Ajayi in the second or third? 

Only Gordon was more productive in college football last season, and the two posted almost identical numbers at the combine. Gurley remains somewhat of an unknown until his surgically repaired knee is healthy. 

Ajayi is a safe prospect, with the size, feet and three-down ability teams want in a next-level starter. His comparables include some of the most productive NFL backs. 

Gordon and Gurley will shine in the spotlight over the next two months. But don't forget about Ajayi, the best back currently hiding quietly in the shadows. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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