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Eagle Eye: Fans Will Love Jay Ajayi's Style As A Running Back

Posted Nov 1, 2017

It’s only appropriate that on Halloween the Eagles got a whole lot scarier for opposing defenses.

The addition of running back Jay Ajayi via trade from the Miami Dolphins will help provide a boost this Eagles' offensive attack in both the run and pass game. Ajayi has all the physical tools to be an every-down back on a championship team. He's a physical, downhill runner with the burst to fly through a hole and pull away with the violent nature and competitive style to run through first contact as well. He was a very reliable receiver out of Boise State and a player who has improved in pass protection throughout his NFL career.

Ajayi has become a more complete back since his arrival in the league. Joining LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner here in Philadelphia will allow Ajayi to continue that development under coach Duce Staley.

Personally, I was a big fan of Ajayi as a player coming out of Boise State in 2015 because of his physical skill set. I thought I’d go back and look at my notes on him as a college player and see how those compare to what he’s done throughout his career in Miami. Seeing him in person over the summer when the Dolphins visited the Eagles during Training Camp was a treat. I really got a chance to see how far he’s come in those two seasons. He appears to have developed into the kind of player I expected when he ran up and down the "Smurf Turf" in college.

This run encapsulates everything that I love about Ajayi and his running style. This is an Inside Zone run, a play the Eagles run often. Ajayi keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage as he sees his blocks develop. He makes not one, not two, but three cuts on this play, picking his way through traffic without losing momentum. When he reaches the second level, he runs through initial contact between two defenders, stays on his feet, and runs away from the rest of the defense for a 53-yard gain on second-and-long. This is the kind of back I expected Ajayi to become, and I was really happy to see this run from him on film when I went back to study him.

Running between the tackles in the NFL isn’t just about size and strength. You need a certain mindset to do it consistently. That physical, competitive style doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but Ajayi has it. He looked like one of the top between-the-tackles runners in the NFL because of how well he was able to get downhill and fly through creases in the defense for large chunks of yardage. Here are a few examples of that.

When you hear analysts talk about a running back’s "pad level" or "forward lean," this is what it looks like.

Ajayi runs with his shoulders out over his toes, behind his pads in the trenches to get through initial contact. He not only lowers his shoulder on these runs, but stays balanced and at times even accelerates through that first contact for the big play. There’s a mentality that goes with those plays that you just don’t see with every ballcarrier who walks into the building. It's similar to when Carson Wentz does it in the pocket as a passer.

I love competitive runners, and Ajayi is certainly that. This guy fights for every inch of grass when he gets a carry, and he uses every weapon at his disposal to pick up those yards. He uses his off-arm to keep defenders at bay as he spins away from contact, making defenders miss at the second level as he gets downhill for big yardage.

In the NFL, not every run is going to go for over 5 yards. Defenders make plays, blocking schemes break down, and things are going to get ruined before they even get started. When the play breaks down, Ajayi is able to make something out of nothing. Defenders in the backfield for what should be a 2- or 3-yard loss? No big deal. Ajayi will make a man miss and pick up a yard. Hit at the line of scrimmage for what should be a minimal gain? He’ll lower his shoulder and power through for 4 yards to stay on schedule.

Like Blount, when Ajayi reaches the secondary you’re not going to often find defensive backs who are excited to take him on one-on-one. With his physical running style and sheer size (6-0, 223 pounds) as a ballcarrier, he can be pretty intimidating when he gets to the second level with a head of steam. This shot last year of a defensive back breaking down and almost going into a backpedal upon facing Ajayi one-on-one really stuck with me. That’s a pure business decision on his part. One could argue that he’s just being safe and trying to corral Ajayi to not allow the big play. My guess, however, is he would’ve made more of an effort to come downhill and make that stop if the running back weighed 185 pounds instead of 220.

I don’t want you to forget that Ajayi has some wheels on him as well. He ran in the mid-4.5s at the Combine. He has displayed on film both the short-area burst and long speed in the open field to pull away in space. Ajayi can make defenders pay for bad angles in the secondary, and on outside runs he can turn the corner and get down the sideline in a hurry. Most importantly, if there’s a hole in the NFL, it often shuts quickly. You need to have a back with the burst to get through that hole before it shuts, and Ajayi has that.

The Eagles got better as a football team on Tuesday morning. They acquired a 24-year-old running back with years still left on his deal, at a low-impact cap number, with more than enough tread left on his tires to be an impact player for the foreseeable future at a position of need. You had to give up a fourth-round pick to do it, but you weren’t likely to get a back of his caliber in the fourth round of next year’s draft. Ajayi is decisive, instinctive, and competitive. Philadelphia will love his style of play. I’m excited for him to get into the mix with this running back rotation as this team prepares for the stretch run in November and December.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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