NFL Preseason Week 3 Roundup: Jay Ajayi Can Be Your Fantasy Cornerstone
Watching preseason football is a scouting mission for more than just the general managers ready to pounce after roster cuts. You, the fantasy football champion, have your scouting notebook handy too.
We're in the peak time for strategizing, scheming and reminding Lenny in accounting that you've owned him for years. And Thursday night, Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi reminded fantasy players that he can lead their bragging-rights crusades in 2017.
Ajayi is one of just four running backs in league history to run for 200-plus yards in two straight games. That pushed him to finish fourth in rushing during the 2016 season, his first year as a starter after getting only 49 carries in 2015. And remarkably, Ajayi reached that perch even though he didn't earn his starting status until Week 5.
Many fantasy minds were imagining what Ajayi could do over a full year after watching him bully his way through the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night. Now, just as many trigger fingers should be itchy when his name pops up on draft day.
We begin with Ajayi's adventures in this look back at the opening dress rehearsal night in Week 3 of the preseason. And we'll get to the continued Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback misadventures shortly.
Jay Ajayi Can Be a Fantasy Stud in 2017
Ajayi can be a stud in both fantasy and reality.
In real life he'll do plenty of rumbling, bashing and bruising for a run-heavy offense. Dolphins head coach Adam Gase will surely look to take the burden of moving the offense away from quarterback Jay Cutler and instead place it on Ajayi's ample shoulders. He responded with 1,272 rushing yards in 2016 when Gase went with that approach, which included three games with 200-plus yards.
With that heavy workload, Ajayi may have helped to push you toward a fantasy football championship, too.
Ajayi is effective because of his one-cut power. He used that Thursday night against the Eagles to plow forward for 53 yards on nine carries (5.9 yards per carry). Much of his production came on a 26-yard burst up the middle, and Ajayi also reminded us that he's a goal-line bruiser by scoring twice, with both touchdowns coming on two-yard plunges.
The 24-year-old is one of the league's youngest pain trains as he hammers away with his 6'0" and 223-pound body. And he'll get lots of opportunities to keep painting opponents black and blue in 2017.
Jaguars Desperately Need to Address Their Depressing QB Depth Chart
There are a few annual rituals of late August. And by now, back to school shopping and moving into dorm rooms is right up there alongside buying into false hope for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If you're a fan of watching great football players do great football things, then at least a small part of you is dying while looking up and down the Jaguars quarterback depth chart. Thursday night, your soul became a little darker too.
The Jaguars have a roster filled with talent. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye could quickly become the league's best young cornerback duo. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is just one year removed from a 1,400-yard season, and opposite him Allen Hurns was also stellar in the not-so-distant past, hauling in 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Then there's fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette, who's set to anchor the backfield after recording 4,356 yards from scrimmage over three seasons at LSU.
That's just naming a few standouts from a roster finally giving a fanbase something it's craved for some time: hope. Sadly, it could all be wiped away in a hurry by the woeful combination of Chad Henne and Blake Bortles.
Bortles was finally removed from his position as the presumed starter. He was wearing a headset instead of a helmet during the first half Thursday night. All Henne had to do was avoid a face-plant to take a job from another Jaguars first-round pick.
His response? Henne completed just 57.1 percent of his pass attempts and was sacked three times in one half of play against the Carolina Panthers. He did connect on one well-placed deep ball to Robinson for 37 yards. But even with that single moment of competence tossed in, he still averaged just 5.2 yards per throw.
The Jaguars have reached five-alarm status with their quarterback situation. They have one passer in Henne who is a placeholder and spot starter at best, and another in Bortles who has thrown 16-plus interceptions in three straight seasons.
Hey, I hear that Colin Kaepernick guy is still available.
Are We Going to See the Real Cam Newton by Week 1?
Elsewhere in reasons quarterbacks are keeping head coaches up into the wee morning hours, we have the tale of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
The Panthers were cautious with the guy whose arm doubles as the heartbeat of their franchise Thursday night. But maybe they were also a little too cautious.
Newton stayed in for just one series. It was a 75-yard touchdown drive that started with six runs. That showed how powerful the Panthers' deep stable of running backs could be in 2017, especially when Jonathan Stewart blasted forward for 36 yards on his first two carries.
But it didn't show where Newton is with his arm strength. That was clearly by design as he goes through the final stages of recovery from shoulder surgery. The Panthers essentially asked him to babysit the offense while dipping his feet in the game-action waters.
Newton did have his usual zip on the only two attempts he fired off, which included a solid strike to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a nine-yard touchdown. The two connected on a slant, which showed Newton's timing hasn't gone anywhere, even with the minimal game action in August.
But now he's unlikely to see the field much in Week 4 of the preseason, or at all. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera keeps insisting his quarterback will be ready once the scoreboard matters again in Week 1 of the regular season. He did that just a few days ago while speaking to ESPN.com's David Newton.
Maybe Newton will be just fine and any rust will be shaken off quickly, and he'll immediately show the creative scrambling we've all come to know.
But as the preseason likely comes to a close for Newton, it's still difficult to look ahead with any certainty.
Carson Wentz Isn't a Rookie Anymore, and He's Not Playing Like One Either
Carson Wentz briefly soared during his rookie season. The Wentz of September 2016 was, well, fun. He seemed like an immediate solution. Then, suddenly, he was the opposite, and those good times ended.
Wentz didn't throw an interception until Week 5, and then he ended up chucking 14 of them. He averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt and finished with a lowly passer rating of 79.3.
Despite how a rival quarterback in the NFC East made it look, being a rookie passer is difficult. Wentz may have only had a short hot streak, but at least that came at all. The mission for the Eagles and head coach Doug Pederson in the offseason was to harness what Wentz did well during that period and learn from the mistakes throughout the rest of the season.
Now it looks like the fun quarterback times could be returning to Philadelphia.
Wentz needed a much better supporting cast, and the additions of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery have boosted the arsenal of pass-catchers available to him. But he appears to be lifting those around him more so than the opposite.
That showed when he stood strong against pressure in the first quarter against the Dolphins and connected with Smith for a 50-yard touchdown.
It showed again later on when Wentz sensed and responded to the rush, kept his composure—even while tripping—and had the awareness to find tight end Zach Ertz off to his left. Ertz then turned what looked to be a lost play into an 18-yard gain. And it showed once more when Wentz developed a solid rhythm on a 93-yard drive highlighted by his 15-yard dart to Jeffery for a touchdown.
The Eagles are hoping for a second-year leap from their young quarterback. It might be coming.
Jay Cutler Is Looking Like the Adam Gase-Coached Version of Himself
Have you ever heard about that other time when Adam Gase coached Jay Cutler? Of course you did, because it was plastered over all the screens in your life the moment Cutler ended his brief retirement and signed with the Miami Dolphins.
One of Cutler's defining characteristics during his successful 2015 season under Gase was a feel for how to put his tall, lanky receivers in position to make plays. Now it seems that skill has returned fast, and Cutler is quickly making Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker his new Alshon Jeffery.
Like Jeffery, Parker is a large and athletically skilled target with a wide catch radius because of his leaping ability. So Cutler's job then is to take advantage of the mismatches created by Parker's size and length. And so far, he's been lobbing balls up into areas where either Parker or no one is catching them.
He did that early in the first quarter Thursday. Parker met the ball at the highest point of its descent, plunking it away from cornerback Ronald Darby's fingertips. Then he turned and burned for a 72-yard gain.
Later, Cutler made a similar deep throw that was perfectly placed. This time the target in the end zone was wide receiver Kenny Stills, who had gained a step on Darby. Cutler launched the ball to the back of the end zone and Darby had to commit a penalty, which handed the Dolphins 42 free yards. That led to another touchdown.
The Dolphins' first-team offense scored three touchdowns with Cutler in the game, and the 34-year-old finished with 105 passing yards on only eight attempts. It's early yet, of course, but maybe Gase can dial the clock back to 2015.
Ronald Darby Was Torched Repeatedly
Week 2 of the preseason was a happy time for Ronald Darby. He had just been traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Eagles, which meant the cornerback was no longer on a team flirting with punting the 2017 season.
Then he recorded an interception against his former team, and allowed just six yards in coverage on four targets, according to Pro Football Focus. He made a loud statement, and an Eagles secondary in need of a shutdown presence seemed to have its guy.
But the difference between Darby then and in Week 3 of the preseason shows his inconsistent play.
The 23-year-old was torched twice by Cutler. The first and most glaring came on Parker's 72-yard reception. He had decent enough coverage on the play, but he wasn't able to turn and find the ball in time. A split second is all it took for the ball to sail over his head and into Parker's waiting hands.
Then, Darby was roasted again, this time by Stills' afterburners. He trailed by at least a full stride as the deep heave from Cutler drifted into the end zone, and he couldn't recover without taking a penalty.
Darby is still young, and there will be some peaks and valleys in his play. The Eagles need much more of what they saw in Week 2, which also resembled the 2015 season when the then-rookie recorded 21 passes defensed and two interceptions.