This week we’re taking a look at two running backs who people have been very divided on so far in 2017 drafts – Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins and Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears. Both Howard and Ajayi are currently going in the second round of most drafts with average draft positions of 13th and 14th overall, respectively. The year-end stat lines are very similar on paper so it’s important for us to dive deeper on these two backs given their price tags in order to hopefully make the right decision on draft day. Let’s take a closer look:
With these two backs we see two very different running styles that produced very comparable year end results last season:
Jordan Howard – 252 carries, 1,313 yards, 6 TD
Jay Ajayi – 260 carries, 1,272 yards, 8 TD
Jordan Howard runs with short, quick strides that permit his larger frame to make adjustments on the fly as opposed to being merely another NFL battering ram. That said, he still absolutely brings the pain when needed often running over defenders grinding for extra yardage. Rewatching his 2016 film I noticed Howard would often smash through a defender gaining more yardage but that defender would still make the tackle, thus limiting his home run ability a little bit. He did still produce a respectable 48 broken/evaded tackles by my count so there is elusiveness to his game but I also noticed that Howard lacks that next gear to pull away from defenders at the second level. On both of his longest runs of the season (57-yard run Week 5 at Indianapolis and a 69-yard scamper Week 8 vs. Minnesota) he simply runs out of gas and gets hawked down by defensive backs. Some of these big runs can be attributed to poor tackling but the runs happened nonetheless. In all fairness he’s a bigger guy at 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, and he declined to run the 40 at last year’s NFL combine so we weren’t expecting to see the second coming of Chris Johnson out there but this lack of flat-line speed is another knock against his big-game upside.
As far as Ajayi’s rushing style goes, he runs with violence as if every run could be his last. Given his injury history (most importantly, his knee) that really isn’t a bad way to approach the game for Ajayi. He came into the season with a chip on his shoulder after Miami went out and signed Arian Foster (after missing on C.J. Anderson) and really didn’t get the start until Week 5 against Tennessee. That first outing was nothing special but the next three absolutely were! He rumbled for 529 yards and four total touchdowns in Weeks 6-9, cementing his breakout status. He also averaged 6.7 yards per carry over that span but it is important to note he gained more than 25 percent of his yards on three carries during that epic stretch. Of the two backs, it’s safe to say that Ajayi is certainly a bit more of a big play threat but those huge games really make him tough to read. Will we get the Ajayi who ran over the New York Jets in Week 9? (111 yards and a score on 24 carries) Or will we get the Ajayi who got shut down by the Jets in Week 15? (51 yards, 0 touchdowns and a fumble on 19 carries). That said, those games did happen along with a second gashing of Buffalo in Week 16 (206 yards and a score on 32 carries) so we can’t discount them, but for the sake of analysis let’s separate them from the rest of his games for a moment and take a look at the numbers. In those four games two things happened – Ajayi carried the ball more than 20 times and he had his biggest run of the game in either the fourth quarter or later. He wore out those defenses, hitting them for chunks of yardage throughout the game before adding his final punch in the mouth towards the end of each contest. Another unique stat that stands out to me regarding Ajayi’s workload is that Miami was 5-0 when Ajayi got at least 20 carries in a game and 5-5 when he rushed less than 20 times in any contest. (He sat out Week 1). Here’s to hoping in vain that the Miami coaching staff recognizes this and feeds the beast!