Note: With the Lions in need of a running back, we’ve been examining RBs from this year’s talented draft crop. We’ve already studied Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson and Ameer Abdullah. Our film series continues with Boise State’s Jay Ajayi.
A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Jay Ajayi may not be the most recognizable name of this talented running back class, but he certainly accomplished as much as any back last season.
Born in England, Ajayi moved to the states where he grew up playing both soccer and football. His skills on the pitch had him on track to possibly play with the Nigerian national team, however, Ajayi decided to focus on American football full-time midway through his high school career.
At Boise State, Ajayi overcame a tumultuous redshirt freshman season, which included an arrest for thievery and a horrific ACL tear just one week apart. He dealt with the consequences, worked his way back from the brink of expulsion, and earned the backup job the following year.
Upon earning the starting nod in 2013, the “J-Train” as he is affectionately known, became a nightmare for opposing defenses. He burst onto the scene as a redshirt sophomore, rushing for 18 touchdowns, and topped that in 2014 by finishing tied for the nation-lead with 32 total TDs. He also became the only player in FBS history with 1,800 rushing yards and 500 yards receiving in a single season.
At 6-0, 221 pounds, Ajayi combines plus-athleticism with the size teams crave at running back. He has exceptional balance, decent speed, and phenomenal lateral quickness and burst for a bigger back. If you take a look at Ajayi’s spider graph, his two shuttle times were outstanding, underlining his explosiveness and short area quickness.
There are many things to like about Ajayi, yet he has some blatant warts in his game that need correcting.
To the tape we go to dissect Ajayi’s skill set.
Last season, Ajayi carried the ball a nation leading 347 times for 1,823 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 28 touchdowns. Ajayi finished second to Melvin Gordon with 2,358 total yards from scrimmage. As a sophomore in 2013, he ran for 1,425 yards on 249 attempts (5.7 yards per carry).
Ajayi has limber hips and naturally quick feet—you can see how soccer helped him here—allowing him to make sharp jump cuts to exploit the open hole. Some guys with his abilities like to dance around behind the line of scrimmage, but Ajayi gets downhill in a hurry when he spots a crease.
He has some shake to him and is slippery in space, which catches defenders off guard. This is Ajayi at his best here, showing great vision and flexibility to find the backside gap, then exploding into the secondary and toying with the last line of defense (he makes No. 23 look foolish).
He has some shake to him and is slippery in space, which catches defenders off guard.
How about the ol statue of liberty play?
A trait of Ajayi’s that immediately catches the eye is his terrific balance. He has an innate ability to stay centered and keep his feet underneath him. It’s a rare but vital skill as a running back and it allows him to gain yards after contact and break tackles that other backs would not. He likes to spin off the contact and uses the impact to regain the necessary stability to keep prodding forward.
There are some folks in the NFL Draft media who will admit they didn’t know much about the Boise State product until they put on the tape. This is a play that surely caught the attention of those unfamiliar with Ajayi’s skills.
Superior balance is crucial for a running back because they are constantly colliding with defenders at terrific speeds. The greats find a way to stay upright and gain the extra yardage, and clearly Ajayi possesses this skill.
Though he certainly is a load to tackle in the open field, I didn’t feel like he had as much power as he could have when he ran in tight quarters.
The major concern for Ajayi is his willingness to bounce runs to the sideline instead of taking what the defense gives him. He did this far too often in the games I watched from him. Sometimes it worked out, but mostly it was a disaster. In the NFL players are faster, stronger and smarter. Ajayi will quickly be exposed in this area, especially because he lacks elite speed.
On this play, Ajayi should have followed his pulling-guard and tight end by squeezing through the hole up the middle. Instead, he gives up on the designed play, sweeps to the outside, and with the help of shoddy angles and horrific tackling from Ole Miss, turns the corner and picks up a chunk of yardage.
Sure this is great effort to make a play, however Ajayi’s lack of patience and discipline is noticeable. He took these types of gambles more than you would like to see.
His vision concerns are even more apparent on this sweep to the outside. It’s almost as if Ajayi is blindly determined to gain the edge. In his haste to run east-west, he completely ignores a huge cutback lane staring him in the face.
This type of run will drive coaches crazy. Barry Sanders was criticized for running laterally too often at times, but he was blessed with game-breaking speed and legendary jukes. Stringing runs to the outside may work against Mountain West Conference opponents and even the Southeastern Conference, but Ajayi will be in for a rude-awakening if he thinks he can succeed by running laterally at the line of scrimmage against NFL defenders.
Here is another example of poor vision or perhaps outright arrogance. The Boise State offensive line wins at the line of scrimmage, gaining a good two yards on the defensive line. Ajayi sees this movement and has an easy two-to-three yards before contact if he chooses to follow his line’s push.
Inexplicably, he decides to bounce the run outside right into the waiting arms of the defensive end and cornerback for just a two-yard gain.
At the goal line, the consequence of his decision to run laterally is even more pronounced. The Broncos were forced to settle for a field goal after Ajayi failed to plow straight ahead for what should have been six points.
I don’t want to bludgeon this weakness to death, but merely want to point out that Ajayi’s vision is behind many of the high profile backs we have previously studied. And it wasn’t just a one time occurrence.
Ajayi had 50 receptions for 535 yards and four TDs last season. He ran a limited route tree, but is very comfortable and effective on swing passes, check-downs and the occasional wheel route. He is elusive in the open field and should be a tough cover for linebackers.
Ajayi has the frame to be a bull in pass protection, but his awareness and technique is lacking. He fails to attack his assignment and rarely delivers a punch. He was putrid in the season opener against Ole Miss, humorously whiffing after identifying the wrong defender to block, leading directly to an interception.
That play illustrates the reason NFL teams will shy away from playing young RBs on third-down if they can’t pass protect, no matter how talented they are as a receiver. There was tangible improvement in this area from Ajayi as the season progressed, an encouraging sign. Like most young backs, he is going to need plenty of game reps to become more comfortable in this area.
The comparison to a young Marshawn Lynch is out there. They have similar body types and quick feet, though Lynch is a powerful, physical beast with greater speed. Former Rams and Falcons RB Steven Jackson is comparable as a big do-it-all back with good speed and agility. Those are lofty comparisons but Ajayi has the physical gifts to be a top-end back at the next level.
Ajayi had seven fumbles last season, coughing up the football once every 56.7 touches, well below average. The ball swings away from his body in space, which allows defenders to attack his arm and pop the ball loose. This is correctable but something to keep an eye on.
I’d like to see more power from Ajayi like on this run.
He isn’t a consistently punishing finisher for his size and I question his feel as a runner. There were multiple instances where he ran into defenders he should have been able to avoid.
He slams into a defender here, when he should have tried to cut sharply to his right into the open seam.
On this run, his feet are tangled up and he trips forward. He could have jumped to his right to avoid the traffic.
He missed clear opportunities for more yards on both plays and neither cuts should have been difficult to diagnosis.
Ultimately, it comes down to what teams value most in a RB. Do they overlook his vision inconsistencies because of his ideal combination of size, agility and potential as an every down back?
Those who have Ajayi ranked as the third-best RB in this class are placing a premium on his size and physical skills. Does he have a higher ceiling than say a smaller back like Ameer Abdullah or Duke Johnson? Perhaps. A team will always take a chance on a player with Ajayi’s talent, believing they can coach him up and allow him to flourish at the next level.
Ajayi is projected to go somewhere in the second or third round by most scouting services and has been drawing high praise among draftniks since the end of the college football season. Several teams with early second round picks have taken a keen interest in Ajayi.
As outlined in this profile, Ajayi has some glaring flaws in his game that he must correct. He is raw compared to some of the other highly rated RBs we have profiled. With that in mind, there is no denying his talent is oozing as a big, athletic RB with the physical tools to excel in all areas of the game.
Will it click for Ajayi in the NFL or will he be exposed? Check back with me in three or four years.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.