Jay Ajayi has been the story of the Miami Dolphins’ season thus far, breaking out of his backup role and asserting himself as one of the most reliable and productive running backs in the NFL. He has rushed for 908 yards in only eight starts, a largely inexplicable and certainly unforeseen progression from a player that was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft.
Despite his impressive season, Ajayi’s limited workload suggests that there is still room for the 23-year-old to grow, and for insight on the type of player that he may be able to become, we need look no further than the opposing sidelines this Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson was selected 63 picks ahead of Ajayi in the 2015 draft and has quickly inserted himself in the conversation of the league’s best running backs. Much like Ajayi did this season, Johnson began his rookie year as a backup, and by the end, he had started only five games, yet rushed for 581 yards and eight touchdowns on 125 carries (4.6 yards per attempt). By comparison, Ajayi has 5.2 yards per carry this season and his 82.5 yards per game are nearly identical to Johnson’s 83.8 yards per contest.
So if the two young backs are statistically similar, what makes Johnson an MVP candidate on a sub-.500 team while Ajayi is merely an emerging talent?
The answer is the volume of touches. Johnson, in addition to being one of the game’s most productive rushers, is tied for 19th in the NFL in receptions with 64. He is also 33rd in the league in receiving yards with 704 and has over 200 more yards through the air than any other running back.
The question then pivots to whether or not the Dolphins can utilize Ajayi in the way that the Cardinals use Johnson. And, frankly, there is lots of evidence, especially recently, that they can. Even last Sunday against the Ravens, when Ajayi had a season-high six receptions, there were plenty more opportunities available to Ajayi in the passing game.
Late in the third quarter, for example, Ajayi lined up to the left of Tannehill in the shotgun.
As the play developed, Ajayi ran a short “out” route to the left as a linebacker (No. 54, Zachary Orr) tracked him in coverage. Meanwhile, Tannehill surveyed his options downfield.
Ultimately, Tannehill decided to throw the ball just past the first-down marker to Kenny Stills, who was unable to make the catch. If Tannehill had opted to go to Ajayi instead (pictured below), by the time the ball arrived, Ajayi would have had a five-yard cushion to secure the catch, turn up-field and make a move on Orr.
Beyond simply not targeting Ajayi enough, the Dolphins can also design routes for Ajayi that would allow him more room to work after the catch by utilizing openings in the middle of the field.
As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals do a great job of using Johnson’s talents out of the backfield. Below is a formation similar to the one broken down above in which Johnson lines up to the left of quarterback Carson Palmer in the shotgun.
Like Ajayi, Johnson starts his route by breaking around the left side of the offensive line as a defender tracks him in coverage.
The biggest difference, outside of the fact that the ball is actually thrown to Johnson, is that during his route Johnson cuts back toward the middle of the field — where there are yards of free space — rather than cutting outside and being constrained by the sidelines.
Because of the opening in the middle of the field, Johnson is able to make the catch and take advantage of the space in front of him, breaking the initial tackle and picking up 23 yards on the play.
Unlike Ajayi, Johnson is also regularly moved out wide in an effort to maximize his touches during a game. Check out the following example.
Johnson (at the bottom of the screen) is utilized in a four-wide receiver set, allowing him room to use his playmaking abilities and elusiveness to create separation during a route, as opposed to simply slipping out of the backfield.
Johnson is able to create the separation necessary for Palmer to hit him along the sidelines for a first down.
Despite Ajayi’s similar abilities, the Dolphins seem hesitant to move him out wide consistently enough for him to be a legitimate threat in the passing game.
On this play, the Ravens are showing pressure at the line on first down, likely anticipating a run. Tannehill makes pre-snap adjustments, likely recognizing the pressure, but as the play develops, rather than using Ajayi as a safety valve against the Ravens’ pass rush, Ajayi is used as a blocker.
As Ajayi blocks, the coverage linebacker drops back into coverage, creating what would have been ample open space for Ajayi to work with if he had been used as an option in the passing game.
Rather than setting up a positive play by getting Ajayi out of the backfield on a short passing route, he is standing four yards behind Tannehill as the QB is sacked for a loss.
In this case, the Dolphins’ decision to use Ajayi as a blocker may have stemmed from concerns about the offensive line, which is understandable given the unit’s struggles. Though the play-calling is not necessarily at fault, the example still suggests there is room for Ajayi to grow within the offense, especially as a pass catcher.
Statistically, Ajayi’s track record does little to discourage the notion that he could thrive in an expanded role. As a junior at Boise State, he caught 50 passes for 535 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games, gaining 2,358 total yards and scoring 32 touchdowns from scrimmage. By comparison, Johnson caught 38 passes as a senior at Northern Iowa for 536 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games.
The Dolphins’ ability to use Ajayi as a pass catcher may be the difference between him contributing his current total of seven scores or possibly double-digit-touchdown numbers. If the Dolphins don’t at least attempt to get greater production out of their young superstar, they are wasting Ajayi’s potential.