What Ajayi’s contract means for Jordan Howard’s future with the Eagles

All seems to be going swimmingly so far for Jordan Howard’s tenure in Philadelphia. Minus an unfortunate injury that caused him to miss last Sunday’s matchup against the Patriots, Howard has been a factor week in and week out. As advertised, he’s been a physical presence on an offense that has needed a shot in the arm and has made a fantastic yin to rookie Miles Sanders’ yang. He is currently the team’s leading rusher and has maintained a steady 4.4 yards per rush. It’s no wonder that mounting cries for the Eagles to re-sign the fourth-year back have picked up steam over the last few weeks.

A lot of the same could be said for Jay Ajayi’s time with the Birds. Apart from his time on the sidelines due to injury, Ajayi caused an immediate and lasting impact on the offense. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his eleven regular-season games with the Eagles and added over 100 yards receiving. In the 2017-2018 playoffs, he accounted for over 250 yards of total offense and was a huge part of the Eagles’ first Super Bowl. As long as he’s healthy, welcoming Ajayi back into the rotation makes a lot of sense. With Jordan Howard sidelined and no guaranteed timetable to return, Ajayi is a great fit to take over a bulk of his carries on early downs and short yardage.

With Howard out of the lineup and the coaching staff clearly not yet comfortable putting Ajayi in the game, the Eagles’ running backs ran the ball only 18 times against the Patriots. Doug Pederson himself admitted that he would have liked to run the football more frequently. Without question, the Eagles offense has been more successful when they lean on the running game. For the rest of the season, Philadelphia has the benefit of playing some pretty paltry run defenses. Aside from Seattle — ranked 12th — no other opponent ranks in the top 15: Dallas (16th), NYG (23rd), Washington (28th), and Miami (31st). That means there will be ample opportunity for Ajayi to make an impact if Howard misses any more time.

The question then becomes, what happens when Howard is healthy, and what does this mean for the former Chicago Bear’s future in Philly?

2019-2020

In answering the first part of that question, it’s easiest to assume that Ajayi will shoulder the third runningback responsibility when Howard returns. Boston Scott currently holds that role and has seen an uptick in usage over the past five weeks, with a brief respite in week 10 when a healthy Darren Sproles was tossed into action. Regardless of who holds the mantle, Jordan Howard’s carries won’t necessarily be directly affected; Miles Sanders’ usage has a much more correlated relationship. Below is a usage chart comparing the snap share between Howard and the third running back.

3rd RunningbackSnap%J.Howard Snap%
Week 1Jordan Howard 23%23%
Week 2Jordan Howard22%22%
Week 3Jordan Howard33%33%
Week 4Darren Sproles11%53%
Week 5Darren Sproles15%43%
Week 6Boston Scott6%63%
Week 7Boston Scott13%38%
Week 8Boston Scott12%73%
Week 9Darren Sproles11%48%
Week 110%

Based on this, we can assume that Ajayi’s snap share will begin with a floor of approximately 5-10% (between 4 and 8 snaps, give or take). That being said, his ceiling could be upwards of 20% (approximately 15 snaps). On top of that, although Boston Scott has only seen 11.1% of the team’s offensive snaps in his four games, he’s received a 21.6% opportunity share (per PlayerProfiler). Therefore, although his role is small, it’s pointed. The third running back on the roster’s usage may be situational, but it is also intentional.

This brings us to why Ajayi was brought in — aside from Howard’s injury. Although Scott’s physique and athletic acumen lends to his ability in space and catching the football out of the backfield, that’s not how he’s being used in the Eagles offense. Instead, Boston Scott has been used to run the football.

Looking at why that is, it seems simply that catching the football and getting into open space is not what the Birds need from their third running back this season. In the past, the top two runners in the offense have been bigger backs who lacked ability in the passing game. Enter Miles Sanders; that is now a strength. The rookie has assumed the collective role of Darren Sproles, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood.

Therefore, in his first four games of 2019, Boston Scott has seen a majority of his 23 carries from under center (52.2%) and has only one target. On paper, that is a role much more tailored to Jay Ajayi’s skill set. At the very least, Ajayi has the added benefit of drawing defenders into the box. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry from under center in 2018.

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Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

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