Barry Jackson

Were the Dolphins right in going with Drake over Ajayi? Here’s what the numbers say

Jay Ajayi #36 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates his teams win in the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. George Halas Trophy The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-7.
Jay Ajayi #36 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates his teams win in the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. George Halas Trophy The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-7. Getty Images

As Dolphins fans watch the Super Bowl, questions about their team assuredly will come to mind. For starters: Does Miami have any chance to compete with New England next season? (Unlikely.)

And here’s another more polarizing issue: Should the Dolphins have given up on Jay Ajayi for a low fourth round pick this April, a move that was the byproduct of Adam Gase’s dissatisfaction with him?

Now that we have seen how Ajayi has played in Philadelphia (pretty well) but also how Kenyan Drake thrived after Ajayi’s departure, some conclusions in the aftermath, with some metrics provided by ESPN’s KC Joyner:

• With very comparable workloads, Drake was far better for the Dolphins this season than Ajayi was. Drake averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 133 carries, Ajayi 3.4 on 138 carries.

Drake was the far better receiver out of the backfield, with 32 catches for 239 yards, compared with 14 for 67 for Ajayi. Nobody would dispute that Drake is the more natural receiver of the two.

So that’s why the trade can be validated, even though a fourth rounder was seemingly below Ajayi’s value off a 1272-yard rushing effort in 2017.

But that tells only part of the story. Because…

• The Dolphins offensive line blocked better for Drake than it did for Ajayi, and that was one factor for Drake outperforming Ajayi. According to Joyner’s analysis of every running play, the Dolphins had good blocking on 31.8 percent of Ajayi’s runs, compared with 34.7 percent for Drake.

• But Drake extracted more out of his running attempts that were blocked well than Ajayi did for the Dolphins this season. When Drake got good blocking, he averaged 9.5 yards per attempt, compared with 8.1 for Ajayi during his 2017 work for the Dolphins. That’s mostly the byproduct of Drake having several long runs.

• Besides having an issue with Ajayi’s penchant for complaining, the Dolphins also believed Ajayi didn’t maximize available yards when blocking broke down because he sometimes danced instead of hitting the hole. And though he broke a bunch of tackles, the metrics somewhat support that Dolphins belief. He averaged only 1.3 yards on plays with poor blocking, slightly below the league average.

• For those who say the Dolphins shouldn’t have given up on Ajayi, and his poor production this season should be blamed on factors beyond his control, here’s the support for your argument:

Ajayi has been productive for Philadelphia, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 70 carries, including 18 for 73 (4.1 per carry average) in the NFC Championship. Among backs with at least 70 carries, Ajayi’s 5.8 average for Philadelphia would have rank second in the league behind only the Saints’ Alvin Kamara.

While the Dolphins gave him good blocking on only 31.8 percent of his carries this season, Philadelphia has given him good blocking on 48.5 percent.

And while Ajayi averaged 8.1 yards on his good-blocking runs with the Dolphins, he averaged 10.9 with Philadelphia.

And don’t forget Ajayi’s superb work in 2017 for Miami, when he averaged 4.9 per carry.

If the Dolphins believed Ajayi would have been a corrosive locker-room room problem if they had split the workload between him and Drake (and they did), then trading him can be justified. But if there had been any way to keep that from happening – to get Ajayi to buy into this - then the ideal scenario would have been keeping both and giving both significant playing time – because Ajayi’s work in Philadelphia proves the Dolphins’ weak blocking was the biggest reason for his poor production.

In fact, Joyner (whose excellent work can be accessed through his Twitter account, @KCJoynerTFS) tells us that the Dolphins blocked well on only 35.2 percent of their rushing attempts, second worst in the league, but were third in yards per carry on those well-blocked runs.

“This indicates the blockers did a poor job of creating running lanes on a consistent basis,” Joyner said, “but when they did create a gap, the ball carriers were able to get maximum production on those plays.”

Former Dolphins running back Troy Stradford, the analyst on WQAM-560’s postgame Dolphins shows last season, said if he had to choose between Drake and Ajayi, he would choose Drake.

“Drake has a little more home run ability, make you miss ability,” he said. “And there’s less wear and tear on him because of his running style. Jay punishes people but takes a little more punishment. Drake, longterm, is someone who will be around a lot longer.

“And I’m a big matchup guy. When Drake is in the game for the Dolphins, they can dictate to the defense more [than they could with Ajayi]. It’s going to be a linebacker most of the time [in pass coverage against Drake]. If they split him out, that creates advantages for [Dolphins] receivers. He’s a mismatch nightmare for a defensive coordinator.”

And Stradford makes this good point about Ajayi’s attitude: “Seems like Ajayi wanted all the work in Miami but in Philadelphia he can’t demand that, so he fits into what they want. He could have done that here. But he’s going to the Super Bowl, so I’m sure he’s happy.” 

Here’s my Tuesday post on why UM fans should be somewhat concerned about the Hurricanes defense after the loss of 11 players in recent weeks, and what the Canes are doing to try to fix it.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz

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