This is quite the needle that Howie Roseman is trying to thread here, with this eye-bulging trade Tuesday for Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, with his entire approach to building the Eagles.
Roseman, the Eagles' vice president of football operations, gave up a fourth-round pick in next year's draft for Ajayi, and at first blush, the move seems a midseason masterstroke by an executive who seems always to see a fence somewhere in the distance and so grabs the nearest baseball bat he can find. The Eagles could use some improvement in their offensive backfield. LeGarrette Blount runs hard and strong, but he does not get to and get through a hole as quickly as he once did or as the Eagles need him to. And with Darren Sproles, the best blocker among the backs, out for the season, the Eagles – and their meal ticket, Carson Wentz, in particular – were vulnerable whenever an opponent blitzed, as Sunday's victory over the 49ers only reaffirmed.
In those respects, Ajayi ought to be an upgrade. He rushed for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns last season, though his numbers have declined this season. He is a better blocker than any of the tailbacks already on the Eagles roster, and he will remain on his rookie contract through next season, meaning he won't count more than $760,000 against the salary cap in 2018. In 2011, while at Boise State, he did tear his right ACL, and knee problems limited him to seven games as a rookie with the Dolphins in 2015 and might have contributed to his struggles this season. It's difficult to dispute that his presence, in a vacuum, makes the team with the NFL's best record even better right now, and if the Eagles reach or – dare we say it? – win the Super Bowl, everyone around Philadelphia will be too busy gulping champagne and picking confetti out of their hair to worry about the long-term costs.
But trades, in any pro sport, don't happen in vacuums, ever. The Dolphins lost, 40-0, to the Baltimore Ravens last week, and coach Adam Gase cited Ajayi as one of the reasons for the embarrassing performance and for the offense's plummet to the floor of the NFL's statistical rankings. There were questions about Ajayi's attitude and preparation, accusations that he was a selfish player, and those concerns don't simply vanish because he's joining a 7-1 team. It will be on coach Doug Pederson and the leadership core among the players – Wentz, Malcolm Jenkins, others – to make sure that Ajayi doesn't disrupt what, by all accounts, is a cohesive locker room. Blount's reaction to the trade will bear watching.
Certainly, Gase's dissatisfaction with Ajayi and his doubts about Ajayi's future with the Dolphins contributed to the decision to trade him, and Roseman's friendship and close working relationship with Dolphins president and general manager Mike Tannenbaum put the Eagles in an excellent position as a trade partner. "You do business with people you trust," Roseman said. It's worth noting, though, that the Eagles, for all intent and purpose, have abandoned the notion that they would rebuild themselves, post-Chip Kelly, from within and in a deliberate manner. Wentz has fulfilled any reasonable expectations for his play and development so far, and because he has been so good so fast, and because he will be on his cost-effective rookie contract for least one more full season, it's understandable that Roseman would want to take advantage of such favorable circumstances.
Those circumstances, though, still need managing. By surrendering the fourth-round pick for Ajayi, the Eagles have just six picks in next year's draft – and just one in the draft's first three rounds. "No doubt about it," Roseman said, "we'd like to have more draft picks." They will face challenging and potentially costly decisions after this season about pending free agents Alshon Jeffery, Timmy Jernigan, and Nigel Bradham, and Jason Peters' season-ending knee injury complicated matters in multiple ways. One could argue that the Eagles would have been better off trading for a left tackle at this deadline, given the uncertainty about Halapoulivaati Vaitai and the overall depth along the offensive line, and they might yet need to acquire one this off-season. Peters and the position are that important.
That's the needle here, and it has an eyelash-wide eye. Roseman and the Eagles are not pulling a Cleveland Browns-like overhaul, but they are selling this trade not as an all-in poker play but as a continuation of their particular strategy: remaining flexible, able to adjust to new conditions and trade markets. Hey, Jay is 24, a young player, and he's cost-controlled, and he could be here a while. … As long as we've got Carson, we're in the mix. Still, the strategy puts heavy pressure on Roseman to perpetuate it over years, trading draft picks only to acquire more later, and it puts as much or more pressure on player-personnel chief Joe Douglas, the man whose gimlet eye for talent is supposed to allow Roseman to keep wheeling and dealing as he has.