Futures: Boise State RB Jay Ajayi
By Matt Waldman
Jay Ajayi is a wild horse. Watching him gallop about the field, his gait and hips remind me of a potential thoroughbred.
No, a wild horse can't become a thoroughbred in real life. Thanks for the reminder, Rick. It's always swell having readers like you who point out the little things that jar your sensibility for metaphors.
Those of you thoroughbred owners who are willing to put down your snifter of cognac, recline in your leather wing back chair by the fire, and suspend disbelief for a couple of dozen paragraphs while your assistant massages your feet, maybe you'll get past the fact that a wild horse cannot actually become a thoroughbred.
Then you can appreciate the point that a thoroughbred has a few things in common with wild horses: speed, agility, and spirit.
Like a wild horse (excuse me, some wild horses), thoroughbreds are know as horses that run hot. The difference aside from breeding (thank you, Rick), thoroughbreds are tamed.
DeMarco Murray was a wild horse as a freshman at Oklahoma. By the time Murray finished his injury-riddled career with the Sooners, he no longer ran with the thrilling recklessness that defined the early days. However, the hard lessons learn made him a better runner.
Sam Gash and Earnest Byner flanked me at the fence of Senior Bowl practices and watched Murray display the patience, balance, and burst to time a crease and blow through it to the secondary against a defensive unit stacked with talent. It was Byner who punctuated that run with a one-word remark to his old friend on the other side of me. Thoroughbred.
The best NFL runners don't always enter the league as thoroughbreds. Adrian Peterson was a wild horse if I ever saw one. I still think of this play in the 2005 Holiday Bowl against Haloti Ngata and the Oregon Ducks when I recall the state of Peterson's game as a collegian.
As this draw play covers almost the entire width of the field, it serves as a canvas for Peterson's speed, agility, recklessness with ball security, and willingness to risk a huge loss for a short gain. Watch most of Peterson's college tape and there's a primal, predator/prey vibe that comes with watching a National Geographic special.
Tell me Bo Jackson runs didn't have a striking similarity to a pride of lions trying (and failing) to bring down a rhino.
As our narrator says, "Even six lions don't have the power to pull down an animal that size." When it came to Jackson, sometimes 11 Lions, Bengals, or Giants didn't have a chance.
One commonality with great running backs is something that my friend Sigmund Bloom defines as a 1-on-11 mentality. On any given play, the best runners not only believe that they can beat all 11 defenders if they need to, but they play as if they relish the opportunity.
Peterson, Jackson, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, and Gale Sayers all express this primal quality in their running style. Billy Sims, Gregg Pruitt, and Marshawn Lynch may never earn a bust in Canton, but they ran this way at their best, too.
We like to think that these backs ran with abandon every game and every rep. It's because the coaches for these players knew that you don't place a thoroughbred in a tightly fenced area. You give them strictly defined boundaries, but a hell of a lot of room to run. This is true with good management of talented employees. Want to waste a thoroughbred of a worker capable of transforming an aspect of your team, department, division, or company? Just weigh them down with process. Eighty percent of your workers might need that process to be effective, but with true talent you set wide boundaries and let them roam free. If his co-workers grow irritated, they'll begrudgingly understand as they begin to see the results that transform the job. You don't think some of Barry Sanders' runs weren't frustrating and head-scratching for some of his offensive linemen? You live with experimentation when the talent is this strong.
Jay Ajayi is not a special back, at least not right now. He has the talent to develop into the best back of the 2015 draft class. Although not a generational talent that many of us thought Peterson was (I labeled him as such in my pre-draft analysis), Ajayi runs like a wild horse. Ajayi has the talent to develop into one of the best backs of the 2015 draft class -- if not the best overall.
Much like fellow wild horse Adrian Peterson, Ajayi needs some firm boundaries to thrive -- just don't load him down with too much to think about and risk spoiling what makes the Boise State running back a potentially creative, dynamic force at his position. Ajayi is a fine receiver from the backfield with feature-back size, burst, and flexible hips to change direction while running at a good clip. There are also flashes of that 1-on-11 mentality that good running backs possess, but a wise team will be open to baby-stepping Ajayi into a starter's role as it focuses on one thing. It's the same skill that most backs with dynamic flashes must additionally refine as they transition from wild horse to thoroughbred: Patience.
This week's Futures is not an analysis filled with multiple video illustrations of Ajayi's game. Sometimes in this space I'll share multiple plays -- sometimes from two or three games -- and break down what a player can and can't do on the field. This is often task-oriented analysis that can get readers lost in the big picture -- the pivotal issue(s) that will have the greatest impact on that player's development. I prefer to spend more time on fewer things and take a more strategic approach to the analysis.
In this case, what is the one area of Ajayi's game that will be the biggest difference between development into a valuable starter with flashes of Pro Bowl play; emergence as a contributor who can't convince the coaches that he can be the main man; or disappointment as an undeniable talent languishing on the bench because he can't put it all together?
The answer is patience, and how a team will go about helping Ajayi refine it. And in this case, this analysis only requires one play to make the point.
Watch this first-down run and it may appear that Ajayi makes the only decision he can when the linebacker fills the gap of the runner's intended cutback lane.
Unless you're familiar with good press and cut principles with running back play, it appears that Ajayi did the best that any back could do in this situation and it's time to go onto the next play. Hell, you might even wonder why anyone compiling this cutup would even bother including this play.
Andre Ellington understood press and cut principles at Clemson, but there's another level of patience that good veteran backs acquire during their initial years in the NFL.
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Ellington showed more signs of this patience in 2014. It's the brand of patience that the likes of Arian Foster, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, and dozens of other backs would have used to foil this linebacker who dropped Ajayi for a loss.
Chad Spann is a zone runner who joined me in an RSP Film Room episode on Ameer Abdullah this season. Spann worked out with University of Minnesota running back David Cobb last offseason, reviewing film and showing Cobb where he left yards on the field. I'm confident that if Spann worked with Ajayi the same way he worked with Cobb, he would see this play on film and have Ajayi note that he left yards on the field because the Boise State back failed to recognize a press-and-cut opportunity. Watch this play a frame at a time and it becomes clearer how Ajayi failed to see the blocking scheme's full development and where he could have created a two-way go against the linebacker -- even against an eight-man box.
The play begins from 13 personnel -- a three-tight end set -- with a single tight end on the left side. The gap that the single tight end and left tackle create with their blocks is the lane where Ajayi makes his cutback after taking the exchange.
The best way to set up this cutback is to "press" the crease -- in other words, the runner sells the defense on the idea that he's heading in a direction other than that opening between the left tackle and tight end. The offensive line sells this idea with the right guard and right tackle double-teaming a defender to create a gap as the left side of the line slants right.
All of this action to the right should influence the linebackers reading the guards and/or center to account for a run in the middle of the formation or possibly to the right -- except the linebacker circled in red below who must account or the backside of the formation. It's Ajayi's job to make the final sale of a run to the middle or right by "pressing" the crease in that direction.
If Ajay takes the exchange and gives a strong enough indication that he's heading inside, the press will not only influence the backside linebacker circled above, but will also set up blocks beyond the line of scrimmage.
As we see above, the left tackle collapses the defensive end to the middle of the formation, and the interior linemen are a step or two away from working to the second level of the defense. One of these blocks will include an interior lineman turning outside and sealing the backside linebacker to the flat.
It's up to Ajayi to sell the inside run enough to force the linebacker closer to the line of scrimmage and further inside, which will give his interior lineman an easier angle to the defender. Instead, Ajay already shows his intentions to bounce the play outside within two steps of the exchange with the quarterback.
Note the placement of the left foot with the toe pointed at 10 o'clock. The linebacker isn't likely keying on Ajayi's foot, but look at the direction of the hips based on the orientation of that step and it's clear Ajayi is bouncing this run along the trajectory of the orange arrow.
If Ajayi followed a line closer to the middle and cut back (the inside line in green that forks at the outside crease), his press encourages four critical things:
- The defensive end thinks his penetration across the face of the left tackle is the correct decision, and it helps the tackle widen the inside seal of the backside crease.
- The defensive back working the edge on the tight end continues to curl upfield and inside and allows the tight end to let the defender go in that direction -- widening the outside seal of the backside crease.
- The backside linebacker (red box) sees the press inside and approaches the line of scrimmage with a tighter angle towards the left tackle. This tighter angle makes it easier for either the linebacker crashing inside to give Ajayi an easier cut outside…
- … or, the interior lineman working outside reaches the linebacker, pushes the defender outside, and gives Ajayi a crease inside the block and a one-on-one with the middle linebacker. In the photo above, the middle linebacker is already working outside, but if Ajayi followed the green path, the linebacker would have more likely worked to the middle and not have nearly as good of an angle to the ball carrier on the cutback.
Instead, the backside linebacker has a strong angle to Ajayi despite the tight end's process of widening the crease with his block. Plus, the middle linebacker is heading downhill to the outside as reinforcement. If Ajayi followed the path drawn below, the interior lineman gets the angle on the linebacker.
As Ajayi opts to bend-bounce outside without a press, the linebacker has an unblocked angle on the runner
The result is a short loss, but the arrows indicate Ajayi could have earned 2 or 3 yards downhill, which would give the back enough time to accelerate or put a move on the middle linebacker in a one-on-one situation.
This should have been no worse than a gain of 4 or 5 yards. It's gains like these that a back like C.J. Spiller fails to earn consistently. While some of Spiller's issues have to do with injury -- and possibly injury influencing Spiller to push for bigger plays when he should be more patient -- the soon-to-be former Bills back also failed to maximize what his line could do for him. And the more a defense can tell that the back won't follow his blocking scheme, the less the defense has to honor some of its possibilities.
The best fit for Ajayi would be a team that has two or three veteran backs. One of these runners would ideally be a successful starter who is on the downside of his career and understands that he might be the man this year, but his other job is to actively share his knowledge with the rookie.
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The worst fit for Ajayi would be a team that envisions him as the immediate feature back, plugs him into the starting lineup from Day 1, and then punishes Ajayi with a benching when he leaves yards on the field between flashes of feature back promise. Even if there's a wily veteran in this circumstance, a dysfunctional organization could alienate the vet by rewarding the starter role without a true competition in camp, or failing to communicate its true intentions while drafting a top running back prospect if that veteran is added as a free agent with the promise of starting.
These are the extreme possibilities. Ajayi could make a smooth enough transition immediately. Although this play from the 2014 season is indicative of many runs where Ajayi lacked top-notch patience, the Boise State runner has improved considerably as a runner from 2013 to 2014.
Fans whose team drafts Ajayi should have reason for optimism, but patience -- from everyone involved -- is recommended.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for pre-order now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 50-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.