Celebrating positive developments from the Dolphins’ crushing loss at Buffalo isn’t very comforting, sort of like complimenting the entertainment on the Titanic.
But if there was an encouraging sign, rookie running back Jay Ajayi provided it, with five carries for 41 yards. His reward, interim coach Dan Campbell said, is the prospect of more playing time Sunday at Philadelphia.
“We anticipate Jay getting more snaps,” Campbell said Friday, adding he will let game circumstances and performance dictate when the Dolphins use Ajayi and when they use starter Lamar Miller.
Lasting until the fifth round wasn’t what Ajayi envisioned after setting an NCAA record last season. Nor, for that matter, was spending the first eight weekends of his NFL career on injured reserve. So last Sunday’s debut was particularly satisfying.
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“There were a lot of emotions,” Ajayi said. “I had been preparing for that since I got drafted. It was exciting. Eight weeks of sitting out kind of takes a toll on you.”
Ajayi was third-team Associated Press All-American at Boise State in 2014, ranked fifth in the country with 1823 yards rushing and became the first player in major college football history to produce 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season.
Some draft pundits rated him third among the draft’s running back prospects, behind Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. Instead, he ended up the 13th running back selected, sliding to the fifth round before Miami plucked him 149th.
Ajayi’s stock dropped because he was missing cartilage in his right knee, a condition known as “bone-on-bone,” raising questions about his long-term future. Ajayi and his agent have downplayed those concerns.
Being passed up repeatedly in the draft “will always be my motivation,” he said. “I always play with a chip on my shoulder. When that happened, it changed a lot of things for me. It definitely opened my eyes, just motivated me a lot more to want to succeed.”
Ajayi struggled initially in training camp, particularly with pass protection, then broke a rib in the preseason finale.
Campbell said Friday that Ajayi’s pass protection has “gotten better. It’s not lack of courage by any means. It’s a little technique deal here and there.”
The Dolphins originally did not plan to place him on short-term injured reserve but changed their mind when they claimed quarterback Logan Thomas off waivers from Arizona.
But Thomas lasted just a week on the 53-man roster; he’s now on the practice squad. Ajayi said he would have been ready to play in the third regular-season game.
Dolphins officials believe Ajayi has the ability to be a three-down back, and they like both his pass-catching abilities and the physical, downhill running style that he displayed at Boise State.
His mentality, he said, is “to get north and south pretty fast and try not to get tackled by one person.”
Though Lamar Miller played in goal-line situations in Buffalo, Ajayi would seem to be an appealing option on goal-line runs. Last season, Ajayi led all college running backs with 25 red-zone touchdowns and had the second-most red-zone rushing yards (299, on 2.74 per carry).
According to ESPN’s KC Joyner, Ajayi and Gordon were the only two college running backs that broke at least 60 tackles last season.
During his time on injured reserve, Ajayi said he drew support from other rookie running backs. Eight of them, including Ajayi, exchange text messages, usually at least one a day.
The seven others were all drafted ahead of him: St. Louis’ Todd Gurley; San Diego’s Gordon; Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah; Cleveland’s Duke Johnson; Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman; San Francisco’s Mike Davis; and Baltimore’s Javorius “Buck” Allen.
Ajayi is particularly close with Gordon, having trained with him before the NFL Combine.
“We’re all in constant communication,” Ajayi said. “We’re cheering each other on … following each other. We feel very strongly about our rookie running back class. Now we’re like a fraternity. I’ve kind of been the guy in the back just watching everyone because I’ve been out.”
With Miller an impending free agent, Ajayi’s performance in the next eight weeks could help shape the Dolphins’ offseason negotiating position with Miller.
The Dolphins listed receiver DeVante Parker (foot) and starting right guard Billy Turner (knee) as questionable for Sunday, but Campbell said he expects both to play. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James (toe) remains out, and linebacker Spencer Paysinger (neck) is doubtful.
▪ Campbell said he would like to get the tight ends more involved in the passing game.
▪ Campbell has “always been intrigued” by cornerback Bobby McCain, who is expected to play more Sunday. “He’s gritty; he’s competitive,” Campbell said.