BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Two Octobers ago, he was a Miami supernova. Jay Ajayi became only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200 yards in back-to-back games. He was the present and the future of the Dolphins.
Last October, he was gone. The Dolphins traded Ajayi for a fourth-round pick. It was one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. It was a shock to Ajayi.
“I didn’t know I was going to be traded,” he said Thursday. “I was waking up, going to work, and I found out I was traded.”
He says he was more than a little overwhelmed when he heard he was a Philadelphia Eagle. “A lot of emotions,” he said. “My brothers in the locker room – I won’t be with them anymore. I was figuring out how things are going to move forward. A lot of things were happening very quickly.”
There was another jolt coming: reports emerged that Ajayi wasn’t a good team player. According to the Miami Herald: “He complained bitterly about not getting the football. He stormed out of the locker room – get this, after wins – because he hadn’t gotten what he deemed to be enough carries.”
“The storylines that came out were a little bit disappointing,” Ajayi said Thursday. “But that’s the business.”
And the business in Philly means Ajayi is no more of a featured back than he was in Miami. Maybe even less, with LeGarrette Blount sharing the rushing load (along with a little bit of Carson Wentz when he’s healthy). Ajayi has 517 rushing attempts in three NFL seasons. At Boise State he had 347 in one season. The pros are a reality check.
“In a committee it’s a little bit tougher,” he said. “Because sometimes it’s the hot hand. You have to understand that every opportunity, you have to take full advantage of it. You never know how it’s gonna go.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson sat down Ajayi right away and spoke with him about team culture.
“I didn’t know a ton about Jay,” he said Tuesday. “But when he arrived, he and I had a conversation and really I just explained to him the environment, the locker room he was joining. Part of my message this year to our team, to our players is about ownership. We’re always looking to better our roster obviously, and Jay has made us better. Our guys embraced him. Our guys have said, ‘Listen, this is the way we practice; this is the way we do things.’”
The drama of an alleged malcontent is easy to discuss and debate. But that has overshadowed one of the most underrated aspects of Ajayi’s game: pass protection.
“His pass pro blew my mind,” said teammate Trey Burton. “He was immediately able to pick the defenses up when every week was a different team.”
That’s something Ajayi has worked on from the beginning of his time with the Dolphins. For whatever other issues Miami coach Adam Gase may have had with him, the progress on that front is a tribute to his seriousness. He’s not a diva about blocking.
“It’s always something I took pride in,” he said Thursday. “Knowing where my eyes are, where my reads are, understanding my keys and getting the [blitz] pickup and keeping the quarterback clean.”
It’s hard to overestimate how important that will be on Super Bowl Sunday. Matt Patricia’s Patriots defense will throw all kinds of looks at the Eagles, and quarterback Nick Foles will need all the time in the pocket he can get. Ajayi staying home to block – or releasing into space after blocking – will make the passing game that much more dynamic.
No, that’s not 200 yards in a day. But it may be more valuable against New England. After all, the Eagles are at the top of the league in time of possession, and anyone who’s watched the Patriots knows how vital that is. A good blitz pickup is the difference between moving the chains and fourth-and-long.
“I’ve learned a lot more about how to read a defense,” Ajayi said Thursday. “My confidence level has grown. I’ve learned about the business as well. Certain things are out of your control.”
True. But this Sunday, Ajayi will control more than a lot of people realize.