The Eagles made a major splash before the NFL trade deadline by acquiring Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins for a 2018 fourth-round pick Tuesday, bolstering their backfield for the second half of the season and further cementing their status as a contender.
Ajayi, 24, finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last season with 1,272 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. His production has dropped this year – he has 465 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry – but he is a potential lead running back in an offense that has relied on a committee backfield during the first half of the season. Linebacker Jordan Hicks was placed on injured reserve to open a roster spot for Ajayi, a 6-foot, 223-pound Boise State product.
"This is a physical, downhill running back who can pick up yards after contact," said Howie Roseman, the Eagles' executive vice president of football operations. "He can make people miss. … When you watch him, if there's an alley, he's getting something. He's also going to impose his will on defenders."
It's unclear how Ajayi's arrival will affect an offense already ranked No. 5 in the NFL in rushing, with veteran starter LeGarrette Blount averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Roseman said Blount remains the starter before amending his comment and deferring to the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said coach Doug Pederson will address Ajayi's role; Pederson will hold a Wednesday news conference. But Roseman said Blount was not bothered by the trade.
"We are counting on LeGarrette going forward here," Roseman said. "This [trade] is no reflection of any of those running backs. … LeGarrette's awesome. He wants to win. He's won. He's all about winning. He's been in situations before where there have been productive backs on the team. He's been a tremendous team guy since he's walked in the building and a leader for this football team. Nothing changed today."
It's possible for Ajayi and Blount to coexist, but Wendell Smallwood might see a reduced role. Corey Clement is a key special-teams contributor and Kenjon Barner is the top punt returner, so the Eagles need to find a way for it to work with five running backs. But it's a good problem to have, because Ajayi is a potential difference-maker.
As impressive as Ajayi has been in his young career, he doesn't fit the profile of a third-down running back who excels in blitz pick-up that the Eagles needed approaching the trade deadline, although his 50 catches as a junior at Boise State shows that he can be a productive receiver out of the backfield and the Dolphins have worked with him on his blocking to try to make him a three-down running back. The Eagles had a first-hand look at Ajayi when the Dolphins practiced in Philadelphia in August, and he left the team's scouting staff with a favorable impression.
"He's one of the guys that when we came back after those practices, we said, 'That's our kind of guy,' " Roseman said. "He's got the mentality that we're looking for. He brings the kind of presence and he plays the kind of way that we want to play and that we want to represent our football team and our fans with."
But whenever a 24-year-old Pro Bowler is traded, it's worth wondering why his former team would trade him. Reports out of Miami indicated there were concerns about the long-term health of Ajayi's knees. His attitude also did not mix well with the team culture and locker-room chemistry, according to the Miami Herald.
As for the health, Roseman said that's why players go through physicals and the only reports the Eagles care about are the ones that come from their medical staff. As to the attitude questions, Roseman said the Eagles researched Ajayi before the draft and the trade, and also have a good understanding of why the Dolphins were motivated to make the deal based on the close relationship between the two front offices. He was unconcerned about how Ajayi would fit into a harmonious Eagles locker room.
"We weren't going to bring anyone here that would disrupt team chemistry," Roseman said. "We feel very confident and comfortable about the player."
The trade was not just about the final eight games of the season and a potential playoff run. Ajayi is only a third-year player who is on a cost-controlled contract through 2018. So the Eagles will have Ajayi at an affordable price at least through next season, giving them a young starter at a position that lacked long-term clarity. This was not a rental.
They needed to surrender a draft selection from an already-depleted collection of picks. The Eagle already traded their second-, third-, and seventh-round picks in previous deals. They still own two fourth-round picks and two fifth-round picks, giving them six total picks in 2018. But Ajayi gives them a young, proven player and alleviates the glaring need at running back entering the draft, making the price bearable.
Concerns about the draft can wait until the spring, though. At 7-1, the Eagles have a legitimate chance this season. They became a better team on Tuesday, sending a message to Eagles fans and the rest of the NFL with their most notable trade-deadline deal in recent memory.
"It's certainly different when you are 7-1 than if you're having a losing season," Roseman said. "But at the same time, we are not going to do anything that puts us in a bad spot going forward. … If there are opportunities to improve our team, and improve where we're at, we have a responsibility to the people on the field, to the people off the field, and to our fans to evaluate everything."