Heading into the 2016 fantasy football season, there are still quite a few questions we’re waiting to get answers to. One of those questions hails from South Beach and the Miami Dolphins.
The question? What the heck should we do with Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi?
What makes this question increasingly curious is that the Dolphins have a new head coach in Adam Gase, who has spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears.
Before we dive into the variables that will determine if Ajayi is headed for a breakout in 2016, amid Arian Foster’s arrival, let’s recap a few key facts about Ajayi.
Last season was Ajayi’s rookie season after being drafted in the fifth round by the Dolphins in 2015. Coming out of Boise State, Ajayi was widely viewed as a prototypical three-down back having handled the majority of the carries during his college career and catching 50 passes his junior season.
However, Ajayi has had his fair share of injuries. According to Sports Injury Predictor, Ajayi suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during his freshman season in college, a hamstring injury that kept him out of a large portion of training camp in 2015, and lastly, he suffered a rib injury in 2015, which resulted in him being placed on the IR designated to return list.
As a result from his ACL tear, Adam Schefter of ESPN (h/t James Walker of ESPN) reported before the draft that Ajayi was “bone on bone” in the same knee. This assisted in causing Ajayi to tumble down draft boards.
From a 2015 statistical standpoint, Ajayi was OK but not great. On 49 carries, Ajayi averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. Keep in mind, however, that this is a small sample size, and according to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins ranked last in the league in terms of run blocking.
There are items to help us better understand what to expect from Ajayi this season. These include Gases’ running back production in the rushing game and passing game, offensive line play during those years, as well as Foster’s red flags and how those could assist in propelling Ajayi’s outlook in 2016.
Let’s start with Gase and his running game record.
Here are the stat lines from Gases' running backs by year:
2013: 423 carries, 1,853 yards and 15 touchdowns.
2014: 401 carries, 1,756 yards and 15 touchdowns.
2015: 424 carries, 1,646 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Average: 416 carries, 1,751 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Analysis: My point is that Gase running backs get their fair share of work, especially in the form of the ground game. In fact, each of those three years, two running backs saw at least 100 carries. Not only that, but these numbers have proven that running backs under Gase perform under any offensive circumstance.
Gase has still produced RB1's such as Moreno, Anderson and Forte in offenses ranging from Manning's 55-touchdown season to a Bears offense that was eighth in league in rushing play percentage, according to TeamRankings.
The good (and sort of bad) news is that Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald expects both Ajayi and Foster to receive “plenty of carries” this season. Ajayi has also been placed as first on the depth chart to begin the year, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald.
What’s encouraging is that Ajayi only saw seven snaps in the team’s preseason opener. Yes, believe it or not, it’s a good thing he got so few snaps. Why? This tells me that Ajayi is an important piece of what the Dolphins want to do this year and do not want to risk any potential injuries.
Even if both backs go into the year on a timeshare, I’m sure anyone would take over 200 carries from Ajayi if we’re looking at the averages over the last three years.
Part of Gases’ running back philosophy is that he wants a true three-down back. This involves being able to run the ball effectively and being able to make plays in the passing game on third down. This is evident by the stat lines over the last three years:
2013: 112 targets, 92 receptions, 812 yards, three touchdowns.
2014: 111 targets, 68 receptions, 551 yards, three touchdowns.
2015: 100 targets, 69 receptions, 866 yards, five touchdowns.
Average: 107 targets, 76 receptions, 743 yards, 3.5 touchdowns.
In addition to the receiving success, it’s also worth taking a look at the quarterbacks from those respective years and their average depths of target (aDOT) and comparing it to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. It will show you that their similar aDOT could mean big things in the receiving game moving forward.
If you’re not familiar with aDOT, here is an explanation of the metric by the creator, Mike Clay, who is now with ESPN.
Peyton Manning (2014): 8.9
Ryan Tannehill (2015): 8.9
Analysis: While Ajayi did catch 50 passes in his last season at Boise State, we did not see enough out of him in 2015 to get a full grasp on what kind of a receiving threat he was. With that said, all indications are that this area has been Ajayi’s kryptonite in training camp and into the preseason. Jackson wrote in mid-June that Ajayi said "working on his receiving skills will be a priority for him."
In those seven snaps Ajayi played in against the New York Giants in the preseason opener, Ajayi was targeted once, and it resulted in an almost disaster: an almost interception by Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas. Yes, the pass to Ajayi went directly off his hands, flew in the air and, if not for the out-of-bounds line, Casillas would have had an interception. Not a good look for Ajayi, no doubt.
This will benefit not only Foster, but the Dolphins' 2016 draft pick Kenyan Drake, who fits the role of special teams/receiving back. In fact, Ajayi has expressed how complicated Gases' route tree for his running back are, according to Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post:
His offenses in the past, the running backs have always been needed to make plays, running routes and catching the football. We’ve just been working on all these new routes. Last year we didn’t have as many routes as we do now.
This doesn't come as a surprise when you consider how drastically different the offenses are between Gase and former Dolphins head coach Dan Campbell. The aDOT’s are intriguing. Tannehill’s could have something to do with having wide receiver Jarvis Landry on the roster, but running back Lamar Miller also had 54 targets in 2015.
While we know that Tannehill is far from a prolific deep passer, he does have wide receiver DeVante Parker who is known for his big-play ability to feed this season. With the addition of Foster, we all knew that it had something to do with his elite pass-catching ability. Ajayi is running out of time, and he has a tall task ahead of him—convincing the coaching staff he is proficient enough in the passing game to fend off Foster.
Offensive Line Play
While quite obvious, offensive line play assists in a running back's fantasy prospects since they have to, well, block for them. Here is how the Broncos in 2013 and 2014 and the Bears in 2015 stack up to what the Dolphins had in 2015 in terms of run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
Broncos (2013): Ninth
Broncos (2014): 14th
Bears (2015): Fourth
Dolphins (2015): Dead last
Analysis: As you can see, there is a huge difference between the Dolphins offensive line in 2015 compared to that of offensive lines Gase has been historically involved with. With that said, the Bears offensive line did not change a whole bunch from 2014 to 2015 in terms of player makeup.
What did change, however, was Gase becoming the offensive coordinator in 2015. Maybe there is something to be said for Gase and how his offense adopts parts of offenses employed by historic coaches such as Steve Mariucci, Don Coryell and Mike Martz.
Last season was a complete dud for the Dolphins as a whole, firing former head coach Joe Philbin midseason and bringing in Campbell. The Dolphins also invested a first-round draft choice in the offensive line, drafting high-profiled tackle Laremy Tunsil, who should win the left guard job over Dallas Thomas.
I'm not saying that the Dolphins will be a top-10 run-blocking offensive line in 2016, but under Gase and a consistent offense, the Dolphins should improve from the bottom of the barrel, which is where they were in 2015.
Foster's Red Flags
Look, Foster has been a stud in fantasy football for quite some time now. Nonetheless, he has a ton of red flags heading into 2016.
First off, his injury history in the NFL. Over his amazing run as one of the most dominant running backs in fantasy football history, Foster has suffered injuries to his knee, hamstrings, calf, back and the scariest of all, his Achilles.
While we’ve seen Foster battle back from all of those injuries and still produce at a high rate, the Achilles is a different animal.
However, neither of them play the running back position, which puts probably the most torque and force on the lower body of a player than any other position.
Wesseling points out the most notable success story: Edgar Bennett. When Bennett returned from the tear in 1998 with the Bears, he totaled just 611 rushing yards. Of course, Bennett is no Foster, but there is something to be said about how devastating this injury is. With that said, Foster could potentially be the exception, given what we've seen from him up to this point, but we’ll just have to see.
As a result of all of these injuries, Foster has played in just 25 of his last 48 games. That’s slightly over half.
His injury history transitions nicely into my second point—his age. Yes, yes, I know, I’m pulling the age card. But hey, it has merit.
In a study done by Austin Lee on Pro Football Focus four years ago, he illustrates the decline of running backs as they get closer and closer to 30.
Before you say it—yes, I’m aware that the study is from four seasons ago and we have more data since then, but it still holds value when evaluating running backs like Foster, who has nearly 1,500 lifetime carries heading into his age-30 season.
Thirdly, we saw some of that decline from Foster in 2015 before he tore his Achilles in the rushing attack. Granted, Foster performed just fine in the passing game, but he took a huge nose dive when it came to running the ball.
In 2015, Foster posted a 9.8 breakaway percentage. "Breakaway percentage" is a metric from Pro Football Focus that concentrates on the percentage of a running backs yards that come from runs of 15 or more yards. Foster had just one run of 15 or more yards in 63 carries. This obviously did not help his yards-per-carry average as he posted a mere 2.6 in that department—the worst among all running backs with at least 60 carries.
Let me get this out of the way as this article winds down—Ajayi is far from perfect, but so is Foster.
While Gase wants a three-down back, it seems as though it would be best suited from a real football standpoint to allow Ajayi to get work on early downs, sprinkle in some third-down work, but primarily leave that component to Foster, who, even into his advancing age, still manages to kill it in that department while declining when it comes to running the ball.
And let’s think logically here, people—can we really imagine a world where Foster sees 200 carries again? Even 150? I just cannot, I’m sorry. It's also hard to imagine the Dolphins using Foster much near the goal line, as that can be seen as an injury risk.
I’m a firm believer that the name factor plays a role here as well. Yeah, you know, just hearing the name “Arian Foster” send off shock waves and people flock. Deservedly so, as I even admitted he has been a stud forever.
Both of these backs hold a place on a fantasy roster. Ajayi is likely a safer standard league play, whereas Foster offers massive upside in points-per-reception leagues. However, keep in mind Foster’s games played, or lack thereof, over the past three seasons, and just know you are likely to not get a full season. And yeah, Ajayi has his durability concerns, but Ajayi has never missed a game due to a right knee injury since the ACL tear.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ajayi is currently going as the RB36 and RB37 in standard and points-per-reception leagues, respectively. Yet, Foster is going as an RB2 in both formats, going as the RB24 and RB21 in standard and points-per-reception leagues, respectively.
The ADP shift and disparity over the last month is remarkable. If you compare them on Fantasy Football Calculator, there is a point where in both standard and points-per-reception leagues, that the respective players' ADP makes an "X" with Ajayi on the bad end.
It’s quite possible that we could see Ajayi resemble a season similar to that of somewhere between New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings and Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart—healthy amount of carries and limited work in the receiving game. Before you laugh—they were both RB2s in points-per-reception leagues and top-20 backs in standard leagues.
When you factor in the workload from Gases’ running backs historically, Foster’s arrival/ability in the passing game and his overwhelming amount of red flags, Ajayi may not be headed for a top-10 running back season, but he is a great candidate to break out based on his ADP by 10 or more spots, which equates to more than two rounds of value in your fantasy drafts.
Follow me on Twitter @RichardJanvrin.