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Boise State's Jay Ajayi Could Be Draft Steal If Medical Issue Scares off Teams

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystApril 27, 2015

USA Today

It's happened time and time again in media-driven draft cycles: Groupthink takes hold of a player's weakness and turns it into such a liability that the player becomes undervalued.

Nebraska defensive lineman Jared Crick missed most of his senior season with injuries, went in the fourth round and has become a solid end for the Houston Texans. Hall of Famers like Warren Sapp and Randy Moss have fallen out of the top 10 in the draft because of off-field concerns.

To use a basketball example, Pittsburgh big man DeJuan Blair went from a top-10 pick to the second round because he had zero ACLs.

The last example is rather instructive for Boise State running back Jay Ajayi.

Ajayi had been in the mix to be the third running back off the board after Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, but Mike Mayock (h/t CollegeFootball 24/7) mentioned concerns about the long-term health of his knee after an NFL Scouting Combine follow-up:

CollegeFootball 24/7 @NFLDraft

Mayock: Jay Ajayi was solid 2nd-round pick for me. Been significant concern about his medical. Worst case, he goes in 3rd.

Ajayi tore up his right knee four years ago as a freshman in Boise State. According to CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler, there are still concerns about it holding up in NFL circles.

Dane Brugler @dpbrugler

Will RB Jay Ajayi fall? I can't answer that, some teams might be okay with his knee. But multiple teams are not. "Strong" concerns.

Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that several executives "have removed him from consideration or backed way off because of how their medical staff evaluated his knee."

While it's true that we're in the midst of the NFL's lying season, it's hard to believe that a report this pervasive is not regarded as gospel within league circles. The fact that McGinn has talked to "several" executives drives the point home that this is not just idle stock-driving chatter but rather consensus that has leaked.

This is a classic case of overcompensating groupthink that could leave Ajayi on the board into Day 3.

I am not one of those people who believes Ajayi is secretly the best back in the draft, though those people are out there if you look hard enough. The fact of the matter is that he is a very strong prospect at a position loaded with strong prospects this season.

ESPN's K.C. Joyner explains that his tackle-breaking ability is at the very top of the class:

According to Stats LLC, Melvin Gordon and Ajayi were the only two backs in college football to make opposing tacklers miss at least 60 tackles -- and no other back had as many as 50. Ajayi also ranked tied for fifth nationally in the broken tackles category (16).

Ajayi was also a strong receiver, which gives credence to the idea that he could be a true three-down back. Personally, he reminds me a bit of another running back who slipped as teams over-focused on the draft process: Green Bay's Eddie Lacy.

And here's the thing that really makes me think these executives are missing the forest for the treesand the ACL for the kneeson Ajayi: He's a running back.

It'd be one thing if teams were drafting Ajayi at a position with low attrition. It'd be understandable if teams saw a quarterback and worried about his base in the long term because of a past knee injury. But running backs die off all the time and rarely make it through seasons without injury.

A lot of them have already expended all their useful years in the NFL by the time their rookie contract is up after the fourth season.

To not take a running back because you're worried about the potential for future injuries is the kind of reasoning you'd expect to find in an ancient proverb. All NFL running backs are going to get injured. It's part of why they're such a fungible commodity. The only question is the talent.

Riversdamus says, "Worry not about drafting a healthy running back, worry about your timing for drafting a running back who will undoubtedly get hurt."

NationalFootballPost @FootballPost

NFP Prospect Focus: Jay Ajayi http://t.co/h1rOEG10oM

As it is, I'm not a big proponent of drafting running backs early. I think you can generate a better running game by focusing on the offensive line than you can on the guy who holds the ball.

But if Ajayi falls into Day 3, I think he'll have reached the point where the risk is no longer greater than the reward. He's not necessarily the best bet of all the running backs, but a player with that kind of talent shouldn't be on the board that late in the draft.

And if he is, perhaps he'll be the next subject of a Dan Pompei piece to be created in 2019. The next "one that got away."

All DYAR and DVOA numbers cited are courtesy of Football Outsiders. Learn more about DVOA here.

 

Rivers McCown is an NFL Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.