The most important player on the New England Patriots? Tom Brady, of course.
The most important player on the Green Bay Packers? Aaron Rodgers.
The quarterback is probably the most important player on most NFL teams and if that isn’t true, it’s rare the team is a playoff contender because today’s NFL is so much about quarterback play.
The Denver Broncos are an exception. Von Miller is the most important player on that playoff contending team that is still searching for a starting quarterback. And the Miami Dolphins also are an exception because the most important player on that team is running back Jay Ajayi.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Amazing isn’t it?
The Dolphins are certain they have a winning quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. They have one of the NFL’s highest paid and most accomplished defenders in Ndamukong Suh. Reshad Jones and Cameron Wake are elite.
And yet Ajayi is the most important player on the team.
Take Tannehill off the team. Does that crash the season?
It didn’t last year when the quarterback injured his left knee.
Miami won two of the final three regular-season games without Tannehill and the team’s scoring average went from 21.6 points per game to 27.3 points per game. I’m not saying Matt Moore is better than Tannehill or the Dolphins are better off without Tannehill.
I’m saying the Apocalypse does not begin if Tannehill isn’t available.
Jones? Wake? Their absence would lessen the team as it did the past two seasons when one or the other was injured. But the Dolphins have options without them.
Similarly, if Suh cannot take his usual 80-85 percent of the snaps in games, the Dolphins are diminished in the middle of their defense. But a Dolphins team without Ndamukong Suh can still compete for a playoff spot.
Now go ahead and do the unthinkable. Take away Ajayi.
Damien Williams takes over. Kenyan Drake is asked to carry more of the load. Senorice Perry suddenly becomes a thing.
Bye-bye to 1,272 rushing yards. Bye-bye to the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, the NFL’s leader in forced missed tackles and one of the leaders in yards after contact.
I asked Ajayi if he thinks he’s the team’s most important player Tuesday after the Dolphins conducted the first of this offseason’s organized team activity (OTA) practices. And his answer was as impressive in its maturity as his 4.9-yard per carry average was last season in its consistency.
“I can’t say that,” Ajayi said. “That’s not for me to say. I feel like everyone has an important job to do. I think that basketball in comparison to football, one guy can take over. That guy is the most important guy. In football you don’t have that. Personally, I know my part plays an important role in how well we do. I understand that and that’s why I respect going out there every Sunday and bringing my game to a higher level.
“I understand my play will affect the outcome of the game in some way. That’s how I look at the game. I want to affect the game for us to win. Anything that I can do to affect us winning, that’s what I want to do. And if that’s important, that’s what we’ll call it.”
There’s no brashness to that but neither is there false humility. Ajayi is assessing his role on the Dolphins realistically. If he’s not there, not delivering a breakout season or perhaps not showing improvement on last season’s success, the Dolphins are in trouble.
Ajayi isn’t focused on this, by the way. He didn’t bring it up. I brought it up.
The Miami starting running back is instead focused on becoming more valuable to his team. More important.
“I think I’m a little bit more comfortable; but at the same time, a lot more determined,” Ajayi said. “I know what I can do in this league; but at the same time, it’s about just pushing that box, pushing to reach even higher. I know that I can do a lot more and that’s kind of what this offseason is about -- just working on the little things, the details to kind of take my game to the next level and really have a great year.”
Ajayi has been working on his pass-catching and his speed efficiency, if you will, this season. He has been training privately in Boca Raton to cut down on the number of unnecessary steps he was taking in the past.
“Everything quicker,” Ajayi said. “Less steps. No false steps. Everything faster. I’m just being detailed.”
The results won’t be obvious until we see Ajayi play again, but he believes he’s already seeing fruits from his labor.
“I feel explosive,” he said. “I definitely feel coming in and out of my breaks when it comes to route running I’m a lot better than what I have been in the past. That’s what it’s about: Seeing a change and seeing improvement. I’m excited about it.”
It could be argued Ajayi’s success last year was partly due to how fast he burst onto the scene. It could be argued opponents weren’t ready for Ajayi and that’s why he prospered.
But that’s a fallacy.
The Buffalo Bills yielded a 200-plus-yard rushing game to Ajayi in October. And then again in December when they couldn’t possibly have been surprised by the Miami running back, Ajayi had another 200-yard game.
“Even though I surprised people last year, quote unquote, if you look at the film, people weren’t playing like they were surprised,” Ajayi said. “What I mean by that is we were still getting the boxes stacked. It wasn’t like people weren’t acknowledging our run game. People were definitely aware of it.
“For me personally, I’m not too worried about whether people are keying on the run game or me personally because in my mindset we were facing that last year already.”
So that isn’t a concern. Indeed, the only concern anyone needs to have with Ajayi now seems to be that he remain healthy and on the field. That’s a key to the Dolphins’ success in 2017.
Because it’s always a key for the team’s most important player to be on the field.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter @ArmandoSalguero