The Philadelphia Eagles seem to be going through a bit of a “nostalgia” phase lately. After re-signing WR Jordan Matthews during the bye week, they brought back yet another former Eagle in RB Jay Ajayi. With Darren Sproles on injured reserve and Jordan Howard dealing with a shoulder injury, it made sense for them to bring in someone already familiar with the team and offense.
Ajayi didn’t get any snaps against the New England Patriots but that was expected as he merely served as an emergency option in case of any injuries to Miles Sanders and Boston Scott. It’s a tough task to ask someone just signed off the street two days ago to come into a game against one of the best defenses in the league and be effective. However, he is expected to remain on the roster for the immediate future.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change, especially in the NFL. In the middle of the 2017 season, Ajayi was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Eagles and became one of the integral pieces to their Super Bowl season. The following season he was slotted as the team’s lead back with high hopes of having a career season. But a fractured back caused him to miss most of Week 2 and all of Week 3, and then a torn ACL in Week 5 ended his 2018 season. It was a heartbreaking way to end the year for Ajayi, who even lost out on the opportunity to play as a Super Bowl champion in his hometown of London, England.
It’s really tough to see Jay Ajayi walk onto Wembley Stadium field on crutches
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) October 28, 2018
The Eagles’ rushing attack struggled mightily the rest of the 2018 without Ajayi. That played a huge factor in them revamping their RB corps in the offseason by trading for Jordan Howard and drafting Miles Sanders. Once that happened the writing was on the wall regarding Ajayi’s re-signing with the Eagles. So, he did the only thing he could do which was to continue rehabbing and hope that a team would eventually give him a shot at some point.
As the months went by, some teams showed interest in Ajayi. The Indianapolis Colts, who’s Head Coach Frank Reich was the Offensive Coordinator for the Eagles in 2017, were the first team to bring him in for a workout back in March. The next call wouldn’t come until the middle of the season when the Arizona Cardinals brought him in on October 22nd. A couple weeks later the Detroit Lions brought him in as well. But as we all know, none of them ended up signing Ajayi, which wasn’t a good sign. Not to mention the other RB-needy teams like the Houston Texans and New York Giants chose not to even bring him in for a workout.
Ajayi’s injury history is pretty extensive; the ACL tear his freshman year at Boise State, the broken rib his rookie season, the concussion in training camp of 2017, the minor foot injury prior to Week 1 of 2018, and then the two injuries mentioned prior all have taken their toll on the talented runner. He plays with an aggressive and fearless style of running, and as admirable and effective it might be it doesn’t help with his durability.
At full health, Ajayi is one of the better running backs in the league. He was never elite, but he was in that 2nd tier of runners that you would still consider great. The fact that multiple teams passed on him in favor of other running backs that simply weren’t as good as a fully healthy Ajayi tells me that he didn’t have the same explosiveness, agility, and overall athleticism that he once had. It’s a sad and unfortunate realization to come to, knowing that a talent like him would have his career cut short due to injuries.
But alas, Ajayi’s journey has come full circle as the team that chose to not bring him back in the first place and the one that he won a Super Bowl with is ultimately the one that is giving him another chance. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s an opportunity that Ajayi is grateful for.
Expectations need to be severely tempered, of course. Not only do we have to question how much the “Jay Train” has left in him, but also, it’s not as though he’ll be coming back as the lead guy again. Jordan Howard’s injury isn’t seen as anything too serious and shouldn’t keep him out of the lineup for too long. Miles Sanders is the team’s only dynamic weapon on offense and is their RB of the future. If both stay healthy Ajayi’s touches will likely be minimal. And for the Eagles, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If Ajayi is even close to being as good as he was before his injuries last year, he’ll be one of the better, if not the best, 3rd options at RB in the league.
There is an interesting aspect to Ajayi’s signing that must be noted though. His one-year contract comes with a clause that gives the Eagles the right of first refusal on his next contract in free agency. That means they can match any offer from another team that he may receive in the offseason. It may not seem like a huge deal, but that’s a clever move on Howie Roseman’s part.
Jordan Howard’s future with the team is still undecided. He will be a free agent this upcoming offseason unless the Eagles give him an extension before then. With the way Howard has played so far, it’s hard to find anyone that wouldn’t want him to remain an Eagle. But at the same time, some factors prevent it from being a no-brainer. If Howard continues to perform at a high level, the demand for him in free agency could be high. It’s always tricky to predict the type of money a running back can get on the market because of the value of the position in today’s game (which is a whole other topic of discussion for another day). But a team may show heavy interest and try to outbid the Eagles. It’s easy to say, “Howie can’t let any team outbid him for Howard”, but you also must look at the cap situation for the next couple of years. There are a lot of veterans that are signed long-term with the team right now, with the big salary cap hit being Wentz’s contract extension that comes into effect in 2021. Roseman is a magician with the salary cap, so he’ll find a way to make it work. But part of him doing so may be to pass up on giving Howard a hefty contract in favor of having a RB tandem of Sanders, who will be on his rookie deal until the end of 2022, and Ajayi, who will likely be a much cheaper option than Howard.
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that Ajayi being extended is more likely to happen than Howard being extended. Ajayi first must prove that he’s still a quality runner that can be relied on. And even if he does, the idea of signing him for an extended period is going to be risky because of his injury history. There are a lot of factors that need to play out before we’ll be able to see what happens with Howard and Ajayi. It’s just an underrated move by Roseman to include that clause in the contract. It provides some insurance and risks nothing to do so.
Regardless of what happens with Ajayi going forward, whether he ultimately gets extended for another year or ends up staying for just another week, it’s nice to see him back with the organization for at least one last hurrah. The last time we saw Ajayi on the field he coughed up the football near the goal line during the opening drive of the 2nd half against the Minnesota Vikings. That didn’t leave a good final impression on Eagles fans who were understandably upset over it. It wasn’t until after the game that we had learned about the ACL injury and how he still played in the game with it. Add that to the other injuries he’s had to play through, and you start to see how much of a warrior Ajayi is as a player. He’s as tough as they come, and that’s why he resonates with the city of Philadelphia so much. And as a fan, I look forward to seeing the Jay Train go for one final ride in midnight green, even if it’s not running as fast as it once did.