Armando Salguero

Start of Miami Dolphins camp offers fans sensory overload but remember to keep an eye on team’s most important player

Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi makes his entrance into the game versus the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium in January 2017.
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi makes his entrance into the game versus the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium in January 2017.

Miami Dolphins veterans report to camp Wednesday and begin practice Thursday and pretty soon every Dolphins fan will be focused on ...

Whether quarterback Ryan Tannehill can not only make improvement in his second season under head coach Adam Gase but whether he can stay healthy?

Whether Jarvis Landry gets a new contract, and if he doesn’t is an emotional leader going to become an emotional problem?

Whether Mike Pouncey is going to get and stay healthy?

Whether Reshad Jones is going to return to Pro Bowl form?

Whether Ndamukong Suh is going to not only be great but tow Jordan Phillips and a pair of rookie defensive tackles to greater heights even as he soars?

Whether tight Julius Thomas, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, safeties Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald, and tight end Anthony Fasano are going to make the veteran additions a boon or a bust?

There’s going to be a lot of moving parts that will draw a Dolphins fan’s interest in 2017.

And I’m over here with a fierce tan following my summer vacation wondering if anyone is going to get around to thinking and talking about the most important player on the team.

Jay Ajayi.

(Yeah, many of you are disagreeing he’s the most important player on the team. I get it. He’s not a QB. He’s not highly paid. But he is currently irreplaceable because the Dolphins have no comparable Plan B if he’s not available. So that makes him kind of very important. This also makes him important: All we saw from him last season was perhaps only a portion of what he’s expecting to show this season.)

Think about that last line for a second. I was on NFL radio a week or two back and the host asked me if Ajayi was going to become a Top 5 NFL running back.

And I suggested he check out the 2016 regular season stats book because Ajayi rushed for 1,272 yards and that was fourth-most in the NFL. So he is already a Top 5 running back if things like, you know, production are considered.

The interesting thing to watch with Ajayi as the team hits the field this training camp, this preseason, this regular-season is whether he takes the next step in his development. And, yes, that means he has to produce more rushing yards.

Someone within the organization was talking to me about Ajayi recently and mentioned a “1,500-yard season,” in passing. And that would be very good.

But a bigger step to watch in this running back’s development is as a pass catcher. Ajayi, you see, has set himself up for a leap in the receiving department. And the reason he thinks he can make that leap is because his 27 catches for 151 yards last season was not exactly jaw-dropping.

“I love the way Jay went about his entire spring,” coach Adam Gase said.

What was there to love? Ajayi apparently asked to be put in as many situations as possible in the passing game that he didn’t get to do last year. His mindset in doing this was giving coaches the desire to use him as a pass-catcher this season.

So empty backfield? Ajayi wants to be in the game to catch passes when no one is in the backfield. Third down? Ajayi wants to be in the game to release from the backfield. Play action? Ajayi wants to do more than run the same check down route after a play action fake to him.

Ajayi showed coaches he wants to stretch himself. He doesn’t just want to be a 1,000-yard-plus rusher anymore. He focused on the details of the passing game. He did what he could to be relied upon on every down.

He basically told coaches he wants to be part of every aspect of the offensive game plan.

“You could see when we were watching him in practice he had really worked on a lot of things as far as in the passing game: Routes, protections, to where he either studied video or he spent a lot time running routes and we saw it in practice,” Gase said. “I love the fact that he challenged himself. He wanted to be a guy that could be used on all three downs that ˜Hey, when we’re doing this certain concept, we’d rather not have somebody else in there.’

“He wants to make sure you can call anything you want on that call sheet and I can do it. He did a great job of putting that out there, showing us that whatever we ask him, whatever we’ve got on there he can do.”

That presents grand possibilities. And it presents some issues for coaches. Suppose they take up Ajayi’s requests and now he’s playing 450 snaps?

“Relax I’ll get it done right. I’ll figure it out,” Gase said. “I’ll make sure I manage it right. I know that seems to be a big concern. We have a good plan for him. We understand his running style. He does a good job of telling us where he’s at. He’s not afraid to, If he starts to get banged up a little bit, he’ll tell us. It’s in a good way. He’s constantly communicating to make sure that we know exactly where he’s at. He doesn’t hide anything from us.”

Yeah, including the desire to be more a part of the passing game.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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