Jay Ajayi Comes with Risk, but Dolphins Found Potential Workhorse RB in Round 5

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMay 2, 2015

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Running back, by nature, is a combustible position. The Miami Dolphins know that, and so does their new running back, Jay Ajayi, who was selected in the fifth round Saturday despite apparently having a knee that's held together with fishing line.

Ajayi tore his ACL in 2011, and concerns about a short career along with possible microfracture surgery led to several teams removing him from their draft boards entirely, according to a report from Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel.

“I just don’t know if he’ll hold up physically,” a scout told McGinn. “He’s had a lot of carries.”

A nearly annual dilemma was presented to the Dolphins and, well, every other team that watched Ajayi plunge from potentially being a second-round pick all the way to Round 5.

Knowing the physically punishing nature of the running back position, and knowing Ajayi’s knee could be “bone on bone,” according to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock (via Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman), should a general manager care about a possibly successful yet brief career?

Put another way…

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NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport cited Eddie Lacy as a similar case study. Prior to the draft in 2013, there were concerns about a hamstring problem and Lacy’s toe injury, which required fusion surgery. Basically, he was your typical Alabama running back: battered and beaten into the ground.

Now, over two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Lacy has logged 3,001 yards from scrimmage, along with 24 touchdowns while averaging 4.4 yards per carry.

Lacy has been just fine, thanks. Will his good health continue? That future can’t be predicted for him—or Ajayi. The choice for the Dolphins was to either follow the darkest timeline and assume only horrible outcomes and knee shredding lie ahead, or gladly accept the gift given to them by the league’s risk aversion.

They chose the latter path, prioritizing production over an unknown future. Their reward? A running back with more than just nation-leading numbers in 2014 during his final year at Boise State. Ajayi was the only college running back to finish with 1,800-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards.

His production was historic, too. Ajayi’s 2,358 yards from scrimmage were the eighth-most since 1956. When your name is in the top 10 on this list and alongside the likes of Eddie George, Ricky Williams and Marcus Allen, you’re probably worth a fifth-round pick.

College yards from scrimmage leaders since 1956
Running backYearYards from scrimmage
Kevin Smith20072,809
Melvin Gordon20142,740
Barry Sanders19882,734
Marcus Allen19812,683
Larry Johnson20022,436
Matt Forte20072,409
Ricky Williams19982,386
Jay Ajayi20142,358
Rashaan Salaam19942,349
Eddie George19952,344
Source: College Football Reference

Ajayi taking a tumble of some length during the draft wasn’t exactly shocking due to the lingering uncertainty over his ability to stay healthy. But that free fall lasting until the Dolphins’ 149th overall pick was a shining example of jittery front-office nerves winning the day.

None of the 13 running backs selected ahead of Ajayi posted 32 touchdowns in 2014, tied for first in the nation. And none of them accounted for a total of 192 points, also tied for first.

Ajayi has sole ownership over that production, and what makes his plunge even more curious is that it came when he was far removed from his devastating knee injury. We can even look beyond 2014 and see a thriving 2013 season featuring 1,696 total yards.

Team executives had two years' worth of any tool they wished to use—whether it was statistical evidence or game film—to see that Ajayi could perform just fine following knee surgery. Yet he kept spiraling, and with every pick, the risk attached to him gradually faded.

Clouding Ajayi’s fall further were the concerns about his college touches, of which there were plenty. There are two ways to look at his nation-leading 347 carries in 2014: He’s been whacked repeatedly on a wonky knee, or he’s shown that same knee can sustain the rigors of high-volume work.

The Dolphins again chose to see plenty of liquid in their glass, which seems sensible in a draft when Melvin Gordon had only four fewer carries than Ajayi in 2014 and the San Diego Chargers traded up to make him a top-15 pick. Then there’s Todd Gurley, the newest St. Louis Rams running back and their 10th overall pick, even though he could miss a chunk of his rookie season recovering from a torn ACL.

Day 3 of the draft is a time for calculated risk to both address needs and plug in depth. The Dolphins did both with Ajayi, as a proven backfield workhorse can now form an ideal tandem with Lamar Miller and possibly be his replacement in 2016 (Miller is entering the final year of his current contract).

Ajayi brings a coveted combination of booming size (6’0”, 221 lbs) and explosion movement. At the scouting combine, he posted one of the fastest 20-yard shuttle times among running backs (4.10) and a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash—quickness that allows him to power through contact and generate additional yards.

He comes with a warning label, one the Dolphins and others read. But now the worst-case scenario is likely four years of power running followed by nothing if his body can’t withstand any more NFL punches.

The best-case scenario? The Dolphins just grabbed another long-term offensive weapon, adding Ajayi to a draft that already includes wide receiver DeVante Parker. And they did it in the fifth round.