After finishing as the 11th-highest scoring running back in fantasy football in 2016, despite recording less than 14 carries in each of his first four games, Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi projects to be one of the top-selected running backs in 2017.
The 2016 season couldn’t have started worse for Ajayi who was left in Miami during the team’s week one road game in Seattle after not reacting to his place on the depth chart as well as the coaching staff would have liked.
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Arian Foster was the starting running back for the week one game against the Seahawks, and the team also flirted with Kenyan Drake at starter, before ultimately committing to Ajayi a few weeks into the season.
Once Ajayi was solidified as the starting running back – coincidentally at the same time the offensive line was back to full strength – the Dolphins’ running game was taken to the next level as Ajayi recorded 529 yards over the team’s next three games including back-to-back 200-yard performances against the Steelers and Bills.
While Ajayi notched one final 200-plus yard performance week 16 against Buffalo – bringing his season total to three – the remainder of the season wasn’t as eye-popping for Ajayi owners as he eclipsed 100 yards just one time outside his 200-plus yard performances.
Between weeks 10-15, Ajayi recorded just 361 yards on 3.5 yards per carry and one touchdown, which left fantasy owners much to be desired as their teams were wrapping up their regular seasons and beginning to play in their league’s playoffs.
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For 2017, Ajayi has an average draft position that places him in the second round as the 8th-ranked running back. The two players ranked ahead of Ajayi are Melvin Gordon of the Chargers and DeMarco Murray of the Titans while the two players behind him are the Bears’ Jordan Howard and the Raiders recent acquisition, Marshawn Lynch.
A key to Ajayi’s success in 2017 will rely heavily on the health of the offensive line. The combination of Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod and Ja’Wuan James started just four games last season, in which Ajayi averaged 21.8 fantasy points per game.
Compare that to the games where at least one of those starting offensive lineman didn’t play and Ajayi averaged 9.2 fantasy points per game. Also, if you take away the second 200-yard game against Buffalo, Ajayi averaged just 7.4 fantasy points per game.
An additional thing to consider when drafting Ajayi is the amount of players that surround him that Miami will spread the ball around to. The Dolphins, while finally showing some level of commitment to the ground game under Adam Gase, have a plethora of skill players on the outside who will be heavily targeted including Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and recently acquired, Julius Thomas.
It’s also likely that second-year running back, Kenyan Drake, will see some work out of the backfield as the front office didn’t use a 2016 third-round selection on Drake to have him ride the bench. However, coach Gase wasn’t shy when talking about Ajayi’s workload this offseason as he threw out the number 350 when talking about number of carries.
While 350 carries is very unlikely to happen, considering the fact only one running back in the NFL eclipsed even 300 carries last season (Zeke Elliott – 322), there’s no doubt that Ajayi is one of the few remaining running backs in the NFL who isn’t involved in too large of a timeshare.
My 2017 projection for Ajayi is 285 carries for 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns, which would justify him being your RB1 in fantasy football this season.