Eagles acquire Jay Ajayi for playoff push: Philly hopes the star back can produce, injury and drop in production an issue

By Evin Hartsock, Managing Editor

     The New England Patriots were just 5-3 going into the NFL trade deadline in Week 8 of the 2012 season, just one game ahead of the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East. The Patriots’ secondary was hindered by injuries and New England was giving up 275 passing yards per game, which ranked 29th in the league. The Patriots needed help on defense, and they addressed that need by making one of the biggest trade deadline-day deals in NFL history; shipping a fourth-round pick to Tampa Bay for starting cornerback Aqib Talib. The trade allowed the Pats to pick up a key starter that greatly improved the quality of their defense and they were able to win 7 out of their last 8 games. Talib also showed up in the playoffs and helped New England to make a run to the AFC Championship where they would fall to the Ravens.

     The Philadelphia Eagles are hoping to have similar success with their deadline-day deal in which they sent a fourth-round pick to Miami for their star running back Jay Ajayi. Philadelphia currently sits at 7-1, the best record in the NFL and the NFC East, which is their best start since the 2004 season when they made a trip to the Super Bowl. The successful start prompted general manager Howie Roseman to add another weapon to the backfield to propel the Eagles into “win now mode” and solidify their spot as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

     The Eagles acquired a Pro Bowl back in Ajayi who rushed for 1,272 yards last season, averaged 4.9 yards per carry and racked up eight touchdowns as well. He largely contributed to Miami’s 2016 playoff run in which they won nine of their last 11 games. During that stretch, Ajayi had three games in which he rushed for over 200 yards.

     A valid concern to have about the deal the Eagles made is Ajayi’s drop-off in production this season. Though the first seven games Ajayi has 138 carries for just 465 yards and has yet to find the back of the end zone. Ajayi’s red zone woes might not completely be his fault though, as the Dolphins have not recorded a single rushing touchdown through the first eight weeks, which is a franchise record. There were also concerns that, according to reports from ESPN, the Dolphins traded Ajayi because they felt that his best games were behind him and that issues from a surgery he had on his knee in 2011 were beginning to surface. However, based on the results of his physical, Roseman and the Eagles were comfortable making the deal.

     The trade was somewhat confusing when it was made as the Eagles already have one of the best rushing offenses in the league, and the running back trio of  LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement have done a good job carrying the load. An argument could be made that the Eagles should have addressed their need for a left tackle at the deadline instead after Jason Peters’ season-ending injury left Philadelphia without a sure-thing at that position.

     The need for a left tackle was made apparent in the Eagles’ 33-10 win over the 49ers on Sunday after quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked three times and hit seven times as well. A lot of the pressure Wentz had to deal with came from the left side of the line and the running game toward the left side was hindered.

     While the acquisition of Ajayi does not address the need for a left tackle, it does provide the Eagles with a long-term option at running back which is something the organization has needed since trading LeSean McCoy. Blount has been a solid for Philadelphia this season and is a big reason why the Eagles’ running attack ranks in the top five in the NFL. However, he won’t be around forever. Blount is 30 years old and only on a one-year deal with Philadelphia, meaning he could easily jump ship at the end of the season to go somewhere else, or even retire. Ajayi is still on his rookie contract which runs through the end of the 2018 season and could be a long-time staple of the Eagles’ backfield if his current tenure with the team is successful.
The former Dolphin also provides the Eagles with another back that can reliably split carries with Blount, or fill in if injuries occur. After running back Darren Sproles tore his ACL early in the season, the team turned to Smallwood to be the second option to Blount, which hasn’t always been a great solution. Smallwood has certainly developed since his rookie year, but he is often inconsistent and the Eagles are never really sure what version of him will step on the field. Ajayi will also address the Eagles’ need of a back that can pass block effectively, a role which no other player has been able to fill.
While Ajayi’s knee will certainly be a concern moving forward, Roseman feels as though there is not much to worry about. Roseman and other front office personnel closely scouted Ajayi during the Eagles’ joint practices and scrimmages in the preseason; and Roseman feels confident about Ajax’s health and ability moving forward.

     The future of the trade still has a lot of question marks surrounding it and no one will know for sure whether it was a good deal or not until it materializes. But looking to the near future, it will certainly make the Philadelphia backfield one of the most punishing in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Ajayi and Blount rank first and third in forced missed tackles.