Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi is set to become the team's starter as he moves, in his second year, to the top of the depth chart. The move has Ajayi replacing Lamar Miller, who moved to the Houston Texans in free agency this offseason, opening the door to Ajayi's promotion. The running back discussed the opportunity in front of him, and the entire running back group this week.
“I can only speak for myself and my objective is to be the starter of the team," Ajayi said of the way the running back room replaces Miller. "That’s what I’ve been doing day in and day out – working to be that starter. I can’t speak on everyone else’s opinion, but I know that I want to be that guy.”
Ajayi, who broke ribs during the preseason and spent the first seven games on the injured reserve (IR) list (designated for return), only carried the ball 49 times as a rookie, gaining 187 yards with one touchdown. He also recorded seven receptions for 90 yards. “I feel like as a rookie," Ajayi explained of how he will be better this year than he was in his first season, "I went through a lot of things that some rookies haven’t had to go through such as the short-term IR and not being able to go right away. Then coming back and actually put in positions to be on the field and make plays for the team. I think I definitely got to learn a lot through those adversities. Being able to come out for my first game playing and have success, that really helped me with confidence out there on the field. Now going into Year 2, having gone through a bunch of that stuff, I definitely feel more comfortable out there on the field. I feel like the game has definitely slowed down a lot more for me. It’s now (about) working on the details, working on consistency. That’s really what I’m harping on – being a lot more consistent with my game.”
Ajayi also discussed his expectations for this year, and if he has something to prove. “I know what I want to accomplish. Everyone else has opinions on what I can do and if I’m worthy enough, and I know how good I am. I know how great I can be. That’s my mentality coming in, day in and day out – to work, so that when I step out on that field, I can produce the way I know that I can and be the great back that I know I can be.”
Ajayi came into the league with some health questions surrounding him, leading to a fall in the draft where Miami picked him in the fifth round in 2015. Concerns about the health of his knee came to light prior to the Draft, stemming from an ACL tear he suffered in 2011. The concerns then turned to questions about whether Ajayi's knee was "bone-on-bone" and could require microfracture surgery sometime in the future. Ajayi returned to Boise State in 2012 after the injury, and has not seemed to have a knee problem since, but there are still people that question whether he will be able to succeed as a starting running back.
“Guys like Marshawn Lynch is a guy that ran hard every time he touched the ball and made huge plays for that team," Ajayi said of how he compares his running style to other running backs. "Time in and time out when he was called upon, he did his job. Guys like that … ‘A.P.’ (Adrian Peterson) right now … He has been doing it for years. When I talk about consistency, he’s a guy that I look at who is very consistent. You can count on him every game. It’s things like that I try to take and put it to my game (while) at the same time being a unique runner – being myself and having an identity of my own – and trying to go out there on the field and make big plays.”
He added, "I’d definitely say there are guys in the league that have done it the right way and have shown greatness at the running back position. I look at the way they play – and their style of running – and I try to take different things from those guys and add it to my game. For me, I know that I want to be up there when it gets down to it at the end of the season and be a guy that people say, ‘He did a great job for his team. He ran hard. He scored a lot of touchdowns (and) made a lot of big plays for his team.’ That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be a hindrance to this team. I want to be a contributor, a guy that makes big plays for this team and scores touchdowns."
Miami changed coaching staffs this year, moving on from Joe Philbin during the last season, then letting interim head coach Dan Campbell leave when the team hired former Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase to take the top spot in the coaching hierarchy for the upcoming season. “It has been really good," Ajayi said of working with Gase. "We started in April working with him, and it has been really great learning all (of) his offense and all the little details. It has been really fun. He’s a coach that makes you excited to go out there and play for him. He makes practice fun. It has been (a) really good time going out there, grinding with the team and getting better as a unit. We still have a long ways to go as an offense and getting where we need to be, but we’ve been doing well so far. We need to continue improving each practice we step out there.”
Miami spent much of the offseason chasing veteran running backs, including signing C.J. Anderson to a offer sheet, only to have the Broncos match the deal. They had a meeting with Chris Johnson, but he returned to the Arizona Cardinals. They have also had a meeting with Arian Foster, who is coming off an Achilles tear and has said he is probably about a month away from being ready to sign with a team. Without the addition of a veteran to at least challenge Ajayi for the top spot, the team drafted Kenyan Drake from Alabama in the third round. Ajayi said of his new teammate, “He’s bigger than I expected. He’s a big guy. He’s fast. I think that he’s going to bring talent to the room as well. I’m excited to continue to see him grow and see what he can do when we start really rolling in training camp.”
Asked if a single running back can still be a workhorse back in the NFL, or if two players - like Ajayi and Drake - should be expecting to split the workload, Ajayi answered, “There are teams that do it one way and teams that do it another way. That would be up to (Head) Coach (Adam) Gase’s scheme (and) how he wants to get it done. I know that I can only focus on myself day in and day out and control what I can control, and that’s going to be my mentality and level of play. I’m constantly working on raising my game every practice, so (that) when my number is called – and (regardless of) how many times my number is called – I’m going to make big plays when that happens.”
The Dolphins are going to be relying on those big plays coming from a running back who has not been asked to do a lot at the NFL level yet. He has proven, in the Preseason before his injury and in his few opportunities in the regular season after he returned, that he has talent. Now, it is just a matter of putting that talent on the field every single week.
Ajayi is in position to be the starter, and he expects to be the starter. The 2016 season will be his chance to prove his knee is not a concern and that he should have been a much higher draft pick - and that the Dolphins do not need Lamar Miller or any other veteran running back.