Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi is going to be the Eagles' "workhorse" in the backfield this season, Doug Pederson said following their opening night win over the Atlanta Falcons, albeit in a very 2018 kind of way.
The opening act of Thursday's game led to some confusion for fans and fantasy players alike, as veteran Darren Sproles got the start for the Eagles while Ajayi played sparingly, finishing the half with just three carries. The script flipped in the second half, though. Ajayi was unleashed, and ended with 15 carries (10 more than both Sproles and Corey Clement) for 62 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
Ajayi was dealing with a foot ailment entering the game. When you factor that in, Pederson's running back rotation makes more sense, and Ajayi's prospects for the 2018 get even brighter.
"I wanted to make sure because Jay was nursing a little bit of a lower body injury for a couple weeks, and just wanted to make sure he was good and get him into the flow of the game," Pederson said. "I think not only going forward, but him, health-wise, coming out of the game was really good. Moving forward, we'll see him more."
That's music to Ajayi's ears. He wants to carry the load. Standing at 6-feet, 223-pounds, he likes to grind defenses down early and take advantage of their exhausted state late. It worked well in 2016, when he toted the ball 260 times and finished fourth in the NFL with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. The 25-year-old has extra incentive to reclaim the role of primary back. Ajayi is set to become a free agent at the end of the season. The bigger the year, the bigger the new contract that awaits him, whether it be in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
It's unlikely he'll get the same volume of work as he did in '16, however. Ajayi has long been dealing with cartilage issues in his right knee. The Eagles will want to be smart with how much they use him so that he's effective late in the season. Pederson favors running back rotations anyway in the name of keeping his guys fresh, as do most coaches in the modern NFL.
But as Pederson laid out the roles of his top three backs -- Ajayi, Sproles, Clement -- it became evident that he sees Ajayi as the front man.
"Well, I'll start with Corey. We've got to be careful giving him a lot of extra touches because from the standpoint of he's also a special teams player, and I want to keep him healthy and going for four quarters, first of all," he said. "And then Sproles, we know coming back is going to be mixed in there primarily on some third downs and some special situations offensively, first and second down. Jay to us is kind of the workhorse, the guy that is going to, between the tackles, he's going to pound it through there and he's a tough, physical, big guy that really took off in the second half."
Asked about his foot after the game, Ajayi said "I'm getting there." The Eagles will be careful not to over-use him until he is all the way back.
There's always a little concern when it comes to Ajayi's health, but if he can hold up, Pederson intends on having Ajayi lead the way.