Ronald Darby & Jay Ajayi

Ronald Darby & Jay Ajayi: A Taste of Things To Come

The Eagles defeated the Falcons 18-12 in the NFL’s annual Opening Kickoff Game. Philadelphia started off their title defense with a tough victory against a team that many believe is going to be a Super Bowl contender once again this season. And the 2 marquee players that were acquired via trade in 2017 both played key roles in deciding the outcome.

The game had a major sense of déjà vu, as it came down to a defensive stand in the red zone in the final minute. On 4th and Goal with 1 second left, Matt Ryan put up a pass in the same exact end zone as last year’s play in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game, but this time on the left side instead of the right, and this time it was Ronald Darby who made the defensive play against Julio Jones instead of Jalen Mills to force the turnover on downs. That critical play capped off what was a great game by Darby.

This past offseason there was a lot of chatter about Darby being the topic of trade discussions. With the Eagles CB group now being a semi-crowded one, some felt that it would be a smart move by the Eagles to move Darby now as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. This way, the team could get some type of return for him as opposed to just losing him in free agency.

But not everyone felt that way. It was understood, by some, that Darby faced some tough circumstances last season. He was traded for and joined the team in the middle of the preseason, leaving him little time to get acclimated to his new defense. Then in the season opener against the Redskins he suffered a dislocated ankle and was out until Week 11. A good part of Darby’s inconsistencies could be attributed to these factors. He was eager to prove that with a full offseason with the team he could be the team’s top CB. He’s already been off to a great start.

Darby’s ankle injury might have limited his athleticism a bit last season, but his elite speed and quickness seem to be back to peak ability and his overall technique is much improved. He’s now consistently showing the ability to stay in phase with the receiver, even after a double move or a 2-way go. And even in the cases where he does lose ground, his elite speed lets him recover quickly. That same speed also allows him to close quickly on passes when he’s playing in off coverage, and that was on display against Julio Jones and the Falcons on Thursday night.

It wasn’t a perfect night for Darby by any means; that 18 yard pass he gave up to Julio on 3rd & 17 was bad. And Julio did win on some deeper routes against him as well. But Darby also won his fair share of impressive reps against Julio too. A good chunk of Jones’ 169 yards on 10 catches didn’t all come against Darby either, as he was constantly moved around the formation as usual. Jones definitely had a much harder time when matched up on the left side against Darby than he did anywhere else.

Darby’s development could do absolute wonders for a secondary that had its inconsistencies and troubles at times in 2017. Combined with an elite pass rush, Darby’s coverage skills should make it that much more difficult for opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball faster. It also puts less pressure on 2nd year CB Sidney Jones, who was the Eagles’ highly-touted 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Jones has lofty expectations attached to him, and for good reason. But with Darby playing at a high level, the pressure for Jones to reach his potential as soon as possible isn’t nearly as high as it could be.

The other 2017 trade acquisition, Jay Ajayi, has had his fair share of doubters as well. Many people have overlooked Ajayi and already assumed that Corey Clement would/should take over as the team’s lead RB. Most people don’t even expect Ajayi to be an Eagle after his contract expires this season, and his questionable knee condition is something that often gets brought up as to why.

But like Darby, Ajayi has been eager to remind everyone just how talented of a player he is. He came into mini-camp in great shape and has looked even stronger and more explosive throughout the preseason. Unfortunately, he then appeared to suffer some sort of foot injury in the middle of the preseason and was listed on the injury report until only a few days before the season opener.

In the 1st quarter Ajayi wasn’t getting many snaps, and people were left wondering if his foot injury was more serious than previously thought. It’s been reported that he didn’t feel fully comfortable with his foot to begin the game. But when he did touch the ball in the first half, he ran pretty well and showed no signs of any lingering injury. It was just tough start for the offensive lineman in getting some running lanes open.

Then the second half came, and Ajayi and that offensive line put the struggling offense on their backs. He has such great contact balance and strength that he’s able to fight through tackles at an elite level. He took complete advantage of Atlanta’s smaller linebackers, running with excellent vision and power and constantly picking up yards after contact. He also continued to show now effects of a banged up foot, making great cuts and hitting the running lanes quickly and with explosiveness. He finished the game with 15 rushes for 62 yards and the team’s 2 touchdowns, including the game winning score late in the 4th quarter.

Darren Sproles is back and will continue to be Darren Sproles. He’s going to make clutch plays just like he always does. Corey Clement is a talented young RB who has a knack for making big plays of his own as well. But make no mistake, Jay Ajayi is the lead RB on this team for a reason. Sproles can’t be relied on to carry a significant workload week in and week out, and Clement still has to improve his patience, footwork, and overall vision. Ajayi is capable of having 15-20 touches a game and has the talent to be one of the top RBs in the league. The running game has a chance to be even better than it was last season as long as Ajayi remains healthy and keeps performing the way he has since joining the Eagles.

It’s only one game. The 2018 season is going to be a long grind for the defending Super Bowl Champions. But you can expect Darby and Ajayi to continue to play pivotal roles going forward, and the team is going to need both of them in a big way if they’re to have a shot at repeating.