Should We Say Goodbye to Jay Ajayi?
Going into the 2016 season, me and my RotoViz Report podcast co-host Anthony Amico were on an island, given our love for Jay Ajayi as a value in the middle rounds.
After disappointing early in 2016 by not seeing significant touches through the first four weeks, Ajayi broke out in a big way, averaging 16.1 PPR points per game from week five on and helping to lead his team to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Even with a fantastic 2016 season, however, I was highly skeptical about Ajayi’s middle-of-the-second round ADP in early 2017 drafts. After only one partial season of production, is Ajayi worth that price? Let’s take a look Ajayi’s 2016 season and see if that cost is justified.
Let’s begin by looking at Ajayi’s 2016 season. I created a system that attempts to parse out individual statistical aspects that may have inflated or mischaracterized a running back’s overall season. I’m going to jump right into the stats, as the headings provide a signpost for the visuals, and the labels are fairly intuitive. However, if you find anything to be unclear at any time, I’ve included an extensive legend at the end of the article. If you have any questions, jump down there at any time.
The general format compares the player to his team and to the rest of the league in a variety of categories and uses green (best), yellow (second), and red (third) to color code where each group ranked in the analysis.
Success Rate and Yards Per Carry By Direction
The first thing to note is the fact that the Dolphins backfield (excluding Ajayi) was below the league average in success rate across the entire offensive line. Ajayi himself found success on outside runs and had higher success rate on average than his team. Additionally, his percentage of runs less than three years was lower than the NFL average, and he turned in runs of ten yards or more at a far higher rate.
Success Rate and Yards Per Carry By Down
Nothing interesting to note here. With the majority of Ajayi’s touches on first and second down, he was finding himself in standard situations and was not exploiting favorable down situations to inflate his stats.
Success Rate and Yards Per Carry With the Lead
Nothing especially interesting to note here outside of the fact that the Dolphins as a team did not often find themselves up two scores, where they could heavily rely on the rushing game.
Success Rate and Yards Per Carry By Quarter
Again, nothing interesting to note outside of possibly the high yards per carry average by Ajayi in the fourth quarter.
Receiving Success Rate and Yards Per Reception By Direction
One interesting aspect of Ajayi’s profile since transitioning from college to the NFL has been his pass-catching ability. Coming out of Boise State, his pass-catching ability was often viewed as one of the more effective aspects of his overall game. However, since joining the Dolphins, he has received criticism as a receiver and as you can see above, performed below league average in overall success rate, catch rate, and his yards per reception average. This may be concerning with a RB like Kenyan Drake on the team as well, but I’m not yet ready to give credence to the thought that he will not see targets in the passing game.
Entire Season Touch Market Share
Here’s a big positive in favor of Ajayi. From Week 5 on, Ajayi was consistently used as the bell cow. Had he been the starter from week one, he would have easily eclipsed 300 touches and entered an area of opportunity that often leads to a top-twelve season-long performance.
Now that we have touched on Ajayi’s 2016 season, let’s look at the possible opportunity available to him this upcoming season.1
As an offensive coordinator, Adam Gase does not have any glaring inherent tendencies he carries from team to team. However, it’s safe to say the Denver Broncos under a fully functional Peyton Manning present a vastly different array of options relative to Jay Cutler or Ryan Tannehill.
If we do a simple 50/30/20 weighted average2 on rushing attempts and passes to the RB position, we can project the RB position on the Dolphins to see approximately 450 rushing attempts and 102 targets in 2017. For reference, 450 rushing attempts would have finished ninth overall in 2016.
In the all-important red zone, Miami did not see a ton of opportunity, ranking 27th in the overall number of red zone plays. Interestingly enough, the Dolphins finished the season 12th in overall passing touchdowns and 15th in overall rushing touchdowns.
If we do another 50/30/20 weighted average on red zone rushes and red zone targets, the RB position projects to see approximately 63 red zone rushes and 17 red zone targets.
Credit to @FantasyADHD for the visual above. Be sure to check out his MFL10 Live App
I have to admit that before conducting my research, I was completely opposed to Ajayi at his current price. I chalked up his 2016 season to a handful of huge performances that padded his numbers, along with an above average run blocking offensive line. However, when I dug a little deeper, I found my initial observations were incorrect.
Ajayi’s 16.1 PPR point per game average, an average that typically places a RB inside the top ten at the position over an entire season, was definitely inflated by the three 200-yard games that totaled 90 PPR points (roughly 40 percent of his seasonal fantasy point total). If you remove those games, his point per game average falls to 11.5, one that typically lands the player in the low-end RB2 range on a weekly basis.
What I failed to recognize was the level of defensive competition Ajayi faced in the second half of the season. From Week 5 on (when Ajayi took over as the starter in Miami), Ajayi faced seven teams inside the top ten in Football Outsiders DVOA against the rush.
|Team||Rush DVOA Rank|
Additionally, the offensive line in Miami graded far worse than I initially thought. In PFF’s 2016 offensive line rankings, the Dolphins graded out 30th. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, Miami graded out 22nd and gave up the second most running back tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
So while I may have underestimated Ajayi’s performance as a player, I may have greatly overestimated his situation. This leads us back to another important consideration: is he capable of overcoming a poor situation to continue his success, or will he regress back to the mean and produce at a level more representative of the overall offense?
We have to remember everything in fantasy football is price relative. I like Ajayi as a player, and he should have no problem garnering the majority of touches in this backfield. However, the RB position is one that is far more dependent on the passing offense to place them into favorable situations to succeed. With that said, I don’t think I can justify taking Ajayi around 19th overall when players such as Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper are typically available. However, if you project this passing offense and offensive line to take a step forward this year, Ajayi appears quite capable of finishing in the top five at his position.
I’ve created a legend in case you are uncertain about any metrics in the article.
Green/Yellow/Red Colors: The coloring system is a way of ranking each instance of the statistic. Green indicates that statistic ranks best, yellow represents second, and red represents third.
League/Team/Player: For all the statistics (excluding passing statistics, as the sample size is often too small of a sample to utilize) below, I’ve listed each with a league rate, team rate, and player rate. League represents all instances of that statistic for that year (ex. LeagueYPCFirstD is the yards per carry average for every single touch by an RB that year on first down. This allows you to see how the player did relative to the rest of the league for that statistic). Team represents all instances of that statistic by the team, excluding the player in question (ex. TeamYPCFirstQ in an article about Ezekiel Elliott represents the YPC average for every single touch in the first quarter by all other Cowboys RBs excluding Ezekiel Elliott. This allows you to see how the player did relative to the rest of the RBs on his team for the statistic). Player represents the player that is the subject of the article.
SuccRush/SuccRecep (Successful Rush/Reception): While we view yards all the same as fantasy owners, yards have to be displayed in context. For example, an RB gaining five yards on 1st and 10 is far different than an RB gaining five yards on 3rd and 12. A team has no use for an RB that can only acquire yards in favorable situation. However, we as fantasy football owners don’t necessarily know this by simply observing a player’s YPC. As such, a successful touch is an important piece of information as to how the team views their performance, as the offense’s ultimate goal is to sustain drives and score TDs. A successful touch is defined as:
1st down – Gaining 40 percent of the yards necessary for a new set of downs is a successful touch (ex. gaining four yards on 1st and 10, seven yards on 1st and 15, etc.)
2nd down – Gaining 60 percent of the yards necessary for a new set of downs (ex. gaining six yards on 2nd and 10)
3rd/4th down – Gaining 100 percent of the yards necessary for a new set of downs
LE/LT/LG/C/RG/RT/RE: These abbreviations represent the direction of the rush. This can be important to know, as, if a player is identified as being above average in one direction but is below average for several others, this may indicate a volatile situation where certain players on the offensive line are a liability. Or, it may indicate an RB is highly dependent on dominant lineman to succeed.
LE – Left end
LT – Left tackle
LG – Left guard
C – Center
RG – Right guard
RT – Right tackle
RE – Right end
YPC (Yards Per Carry): Average number of yards gained per rush
FirstD/SecondD/ThirdD/FourthD: These abbreviations simply represent each of the four downs. The amount of rushes in each quarter can be important as defenses will adjust their play depending on what is necessary to win games. For example, a defense in the second quarter of a 3-0 game will tend to deploy packages defend against both the pass and rush while defenses in the fourth may be willing to give up more short plays to simply keep the ball in play and run down the clock
FirstQ/SecondQ/ThirdQ/FourthQ: Each of the four quarters. Much like the four downs, the four quarters can give an idea as to how the RB was deployed by their team. An RB with a balanced amount of rushes in each quarter indicates one that the team is willing to deploy in all situations, where as one with rush totals skewed towards the fourth quarter (especially on losing teams) may indicate a garbage-time player the team may not trust as their starter.
UpTwoScore/OneScore/DownTwoScore: These abbreviations represent point differentials. “DownTwoScore” represents a situation where the player’s team is down by nine points or more. This situation is typically viewed as one that is more favorable for an RB, as defenses tend to play more prevent defense and simply try to prevent big plays. “OneScore” represents a situation where the point differential is somewhere between the player’s team being up or down by eight points. “UpTwoScore” represents a situation where the player’s team is up by nine or more points. While it is considered a less favorable situation for an RB, it typically represents one where the RB receives more touches .
SL/SM/SR/DL/DM/DR: These abbreviations are representative of the general area on the field where a reception is made. Short represents five yards or less, and deep represents 15 yards or more. There were receptions recorded by RBs between these areas of course, but the sample size was quite small across the league. It would be difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from it, thus I decided to exclude it from the analysis. Additionally, receptions were often times
SL – Short Left
SM – Short Middle
SR – Short Right
DL – Deep Left
DM – Deep Middle
DR – Deep Right
Catch Rate: Average rate at which the player catches a pass
YPR (Yards Per Reception): Average number of yards gained per reception