The dust has settled and the sun has set on the Jay Ajayi era in Miami. The 2016 Pro Bowl running back was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday for a 2018 conditional 4th round pick. The immediate reaction is to see a Pro Bowler traded for a 4th round pick and to wonder why the return was so underwhelming.
There are a few explanations as to why the Dolphins got so little in return for Ajayi and the first deals with the severity of the internal rift that existed between the coaching staff (primarily Adam Gase) and Ajayi. The condition of the battered relationship, which I will dive into later, warranted a “fire-sale” price tag for the 3rd year running back out of Boise State.
Another factor for the return is the quarterback-centric style of play in the NFL. In today’s NFL, no position is valued more than quarterback, which is why the New England Patriots got a 2nd round pick for the services of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The running back position is one of the least valued positions in the modern NFL, just look at the past 5 NFL drafts, where in the first three rounds, 34 running backs have been taken compared to 63 wide receivers.
Also look at how teams such as the Patriots, Broncos, Giants, Packers, Saints, and Steelers have recently won Super Bowls without 900+ yard rushers. Do teams who relied on Jonas Gray, Ronnie Hillman, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jackson, Pierre Thomas, and Willie Parker sound like Super Bowl caliber teams?
Instead, these teams won Super Bowls on the shoulders of their elite quarterbacks, thus largely exposing the running back position as a rather secondary concern when it comes to winning championships in the NFL. With that said, the 4th round pick seems about right. Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin just went for a 3rd round pick and a 7th round pick, a price tag much higher than Ajayi’s, not due to Benjamin’s career production necessarily, but rather for his ability to elevate the play of his quarterback by offering a 6’5” outside weapon to use in a number of key spots.
That ability Benjamin possesses holds a significantly higher value in today’s NFL than that of a slightly above average ground attack. Could a 3rd have been possible? Yes, but the Dolphins’ urgent desire to get rid of Ajayi coupled with his minimal positional value merited a 4th round pick in exchange for his services and that is rather fair. Something to also consider, Ajayi has yet to play three full seasons in the NFL; and while one of them was a Pro Bowl caliber season, he is far from a proven commodity, as can be seen with his pedestrian 2017 campaign.
Now for the explanation of why the trade happened in the first place. Dolphins fans are all wondering how an offense ranked last in yards per play and 31st in rushing yards per attempt are going to improve following the departure of the best running back on the roster. That question will only be answered in time, but Ajayi was primarily shipped to Philadelphia for reasons that manifested off the field.
Sources within the Dolphins’ facility mentioned that Ajayi had been recently getting into combative verbal disagreements with members of the Dolphins coaching staff, something that was seen clearly on the sideline during the Dolphins 20-0 loss to the Saints in Ajayi’s hometown of London. Ajayi also showed bouts of pouting and poor body language following a number of Dolphins victories, where he felt he did not receive his fair share of touches.
The worst part about his post-game displeasure was the fact he reportedly never took his issues up with the man at the top, Adam Gase, but rather with position coaches, which naturally rubbed Gase the wrong way. Another thing that irritated Gase was Ajayi’s inflated ego, which served as the root of Ajayi’s unhappiness with his role and workload. Ajayi supposedly took this sour attitude surrounding his 2017 season and carried it with him around other players and throughout the locker room, a trademarked character trait of someone who might be viewed as a team cancer, something Gase has shown zero tolerance for (just ask Ajayi how his trip to Seattle was last year).
Adam Gase has asserted ad nauseum that he wants to build a winning culture in Miami, and if you are an obstacle in the path toward achieving this target culture, then Gase will find someone who can help pull WITH this team in the right direction as opposed to pushing AGAINST. Buying into the team culture is at the top of Adam Gase’s priority list when it comes to building a championship franchise in Miami, and Ajayi’s consistent role as a disruptive force off the field made that increasingly difficult for Gase, which eventually lead to Ajayi’s departure.
The Dolphins also felt that Ajayi’s health was not going to hold up over the course of the next few years. Ajayi’s poor knees, a major reason he fell to the 5th round in the 2015 NFL Draft, were the reason he completely sat out for one practice a week, a concern the Dolphins felt very serious about.
An important thing to consider is at the end of the day, the human brain is capable of functioning while having a tumor. Normal function does occur but so does irregular function. However, once the irregular function becomes so unbearable that it overshadows the normal function; it becomes time to rid the brain of the tumor in order for normal function to be restored. In the eyes of Adam Gase, the Dolphins’ offense was a brain with a tumor; and on Tuesday morning it became time to remove the tumor.
Arguably the biggest question with this trade involves the future of the Miami backfield. The remainder of the season lies in the unproven hands of Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake who have amassed a combined 22 total carries this year and a meager 68 carries in 2016. Although the benchmark is far from daunting, as Ajayi’s marks of 3.4 yards per carry and 66.4 yards per game will be easy to match, the overall inexperience of the group and lack of career carries between the two leaves Dolphins fans wondering what the backfield’s identity will consist of.
Not to mention, will this shift the offensive focus to Jay Cutler and the inept passing game? The offensive gameplan will remain to be seen in the coming weeks, but I expect for both Williams and Drake to be given a chance to prove themselves, much like Ajayi did in 2016. Due to Drake’s primary role as a returner and change of pace back, nobody would guess that he is actually 6’1” and 210 pounds. This surprising size from Drake, paired with his blazing speed, should have Dolphins fans highly anticipating his increased role in the offense.
I still expect Williams to hold the 3rd down back role he has had for the last few years while also getting a few more carries. The trade of Ajayi also opens up questions for the 2018 NFL draft, where running back has skyrocketed to the top of the Dolphins’ needs. Prospects such as Derrius Guice of LSU, Bryce Love of Stanford, Josh Adams of Notre Dame, and Nick Chubb and Sony Michel out of Georgia are all exciting and possible draft picks for Miami in 2018. However, this just creates another need on a team where plenty of needs already exist. Will the extra 4th rounder alleviate some of these needs? The future will hold the answer.
While the questions regarding the Miami offense are innumerable, certainty lies in Adam Gase and the power he has in molding this team into his team. Just as Bill Belichick holds an iron grip over the identity of the New England Patriots, through the job security he has created and his steadfast idea for building a championship culture in Miami, Adam Gase has proven that malcontents and players who stand in the way of his vision, no matter the talent nor role they play, will be dealt with in a swift and unwavering manner.
In Gase’s locker room you’re either part of building the culture or part of tearing down the culture, and Adam Gase felt that at the end of the day, Jay Ajayi was to the Dolphins as Ronald Reagan was to the Berlin Wall, and he was eliminated. The only question left is who will be the next tumor to be removed on Adam Gase’s quest to make Miami an NFL superpower?