Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley might have the highest profiles of the NFC East's running backs, but Jay Ajayi doesn't want you to forget the Jay Train.
Ajayi, the Eagles' starting running back, was a Pro Bowler with the Miami Dolphins in 2016 before a turbulent 2017 season that included a midseason trade to Philadelphia and joining a backfield committee during the Eagles' Super Bowl run. Ajayi is set for a bigger role in 2018, albeit with a spotlight that might not be as bright as the Cowboys' Elliott and Giants' Barkley.
"Obviously, those guys get a lot of the publicity," Ajayi said. "I'm ready to showcase again to the world who I am as a running back. At the end of the day, I do feel like the world's forgotten about the kind of player that I [am] when I'm playing at the best of my ability and the kind of things I can do on the football thing. I'm excited to go back out there and do that. Especially given the role that I should be in this year and what they're saying."
Ajayi referred to the coaching staff's declaration that Ajayi will be the Eagles' lead running back this season. Coach Doug Pederson called Ajayi the "No. 1 guy," and even if the team plans to use Corey Clement and Darren Sproles in a backfield rotation, Ajayi should get more than the 11.4 touches per game he averaged after the trade.
"Came in last year and obviously proved to us that he can handle it," Pederson said.
Ajayi averaged 5.8 yards per game during his seven regular-season games with the Eagles and had rushes of 71, 46, and 30 yards. He did it despite coming to the team on Halloween without the benefit of training camp or even an understanding of the playbook and blocking schemes.
This season, he spent the entire offseason with the team, working with running backs coach Duce Staley and gaining a full grasp of the offensive system.
"When I first came, I was kind of thrown into the fire, learned as much as I could learn, and at the end of the day, my menu wasn't as wide as I would say it is now," Ajayi said. "Now, I have the full grasp of the playbook. I know all the ins and outs of each play. And also getting more coaching from Duce."
Any conversation of the league's best running backs seldom includes Ajayi. If you play fantasy football, you're unlikely considering Ajayi as a first-round pick. But it was just two years ago that Ajayi finished fourth in the NFL in rushing in his second season despite missing a game. He was the fourth running back in NFL history to register three 200-yard rushing games in a season. So there is clearly talent, and though injuries and attitude were a concern when the trade was made, Ajayi has earned Pederson's praise throughout the offseason.
"I'm not too far from what I was doing in that 2016 season," Ajayi said. "If you look at what happened, I was top five in rushing in the league. I know that I'm capable of doing that. I know I've grown from that player in 2016."
Ajayi said he has a better understanding of defenses than he did in 2016. He suggests working with Staley has helped his game grow. He's playing behind one of the NFL's top lines in an offensive system loaded with talent.
It's also Ajayi's contract year. He's trying to earn a bigger deal – and perhaps a bigger profile. Ajayi has raved about the benefits of healthier eating. He's ebullient about how he fits with the Eagles. So while he keeps hearing about Elliott and Barkley elsewhere in the NFC East, Ajayi thinks he might be the forgotten star.
"For me," Ajayi said, "it's just about going out there and showcasing who the Jay Train is again."
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