Declaring somebody in the NFL a “breakout star” often becomes a dangerous exercise in myopia. After notching his second straight 200-yard rushing game on Sunday, is Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi more Miles Austin or Bryce Brown? After three unspectacular seasons, Austin came out of nowhere in Week 5 of 2009 with 10 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns. It was no flash in the pan: Austin finished the year with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in 2010, too. Meanwhile, Brown burst onto the scene when he rushed for 347 yards and four touchdowns in a two-week span for the Eagles in 2012, but he surpassed the 100-yard mark only once more in his career.
So, has Ajayi suddenly turned into Eric Dickerson, or will he soon fade back into obscurity?
Ajayi followed up a forgettable 2015 rookie season (3.8 yards per rush on 49 carries) with an uninspiring preseason to start his sophomore year. He averaged just 2.7 yards per carry over four games and lost a fumble in Miami’s final exhibition. There weren’t many hints of the quick-footed, versatile power back from Boise State whose draft stock fell mostly due to concerns about the long-term health of his knee. Instead, Ajayi, who had spent most of the offseason as Miami’s presumptive starter — seemingly by default after Lamar Miller left for Houston in free agency — lost his job to July signing Arian Foster.
Ajayi reportedly sulked so much about the demotion that head coach Adam Gase left him in Florida when the Dolphins flew to Seattle to play the Seahawks in Week 1. But a Foster groin injury the following week forced Ajayi back into an expanded role by Week 5, and he’s run away with the Dolphins’ starting running back job since. He’s rushed for 418 yards and three touchdowns in his past two games — becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200-plus yards in back-to-back games — after gaining just 304 yards and three scores in his first 13 pro appearances. We’ll probably never know the exact moment that the light went on for Ajayi, but he looks like a completely different player than the tentative, ineffective runner we saw during his rookie year and again this preseason.
Of course, it’s helped that the Dolphins offensive line is finally healthy. Branden Albert has returned from an ankle injury to replace the since-cut Bill Turner at left tackle, rookie Laremy Tunsil recovered from a slip in the shower to replace the since-cut Dallas Thomas at left guard, and Mike Pouncey returned from a preseason hip injury to replace backup center Anthony Steen. Except, this isn’t just a case of “anyone could run for 100 yards behind that line.” Ajayi is suddenly doing everything you look for in a feature back.
At 229 pounds, the 23-year-old packs the size and power to run the ball up the gut, but he’s also shown the ability to use his 4.57-second 40-yard dash speed and the foot quickness of a former soccer player to bounce the ball outside and pick up big yardage. Against the Steelers in Week 6, he takes a first-quarter handoff and, when his lead blocker (the pulling guard) gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage to blow up the original play, he cuts the ball back outside to pick up 12 yards. This play wouldn’t happen without Ajayi’s improvisational skill to make something out of nothing.
He’s also shown excellent vision to quickly identify a run lane as the play develops, plant his foot in the ground, and get downhill. On his first run against the Bills on Sunday, he sees a big cut-back lane open up as Buffalo’s defensive line overpursues laterally down the line. He cuts on a dime, accelerates quickly, and picks up 10 yards.
In the third quarter, as Pouncey moves to the second level to block Bills linebacker Zach Brown, the former Boise State standout cuts his run upfield off that block to pick up 7.
The little things separate good players from the great, and while Ajayi’s not yet there, the quick footwork he’s displayed the past two weeks gives him a chance to become something special. It allows him to shift his weight in the blink of an eye, while his anticipatory hurdles through traffic are reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch. Against Pittsburgh, Ajayi cuts through the line and, when he sees cornerback Ross Cockrell closing from the edge, he takes an extra step inside and hurdles to his left to avoid the shoestring tackle.
He does nearly the same thing against the Bills, when this second-level hurdle-cut over Stephon Gilmore helps him pick up an extra 5 or 6 yards.
Ajayi’s footwork has shown up repeatedly after contact as well. When defenders get him wrapped up, he keeps his feet moving, and even when he’s spun around, he keeps his momentum going downhill to pick up positive yardage.
And that’s if you can even get him wrapped up. Ajayi has been a beast, bowling through outstretched arms and shrugging off tackle attempt after tackle attempt. On a run early in the second quarter against the Bills, Ajayi slips through three straight drag-down tackle attempts by Buffalo defenders to pick up 11 yards before being hit out of bounds.
In Ajayi’s two-game tornado, he’s broken 13 tackles — the same amount that Ezekiel Elliott has broken all year per Pro Football Focus — including two on this game-sealing 62-yard home run late against the Steelers …
… and two more on this play early in the fourth quarter, where Ajayi breaks through a pair of would-be tacklers to rip off a 53-yard run.
This past week Gase said that he wanted to move to a one- or two-running-back rotation to foster a rhythm for the offense and allow a runner to get a better feel for how the defense is reacting to the offense’s blocking schemes throughout the game. Obviously, Ajayi has benefited from Gase’s approach. He’s dominated Miami’s carries count over the past three games and he’s rewarded his coach by getting better as the game goes on. As defenses tire and get sick of tackling a 229-pound wrecking ball, the explosive run plays start to show up. See: the 62-yard jailbreak against the Steelers and the 53-yard scamper against the Bills.
The sample size for Ajayi’s breakout is small, but the extraordinary skills he’s shown in his two huge games are damn convincing. Ajayi’s not going to consistently run for 200-plus yards, but if he can stay healthy, he has the vision, the power, and the footwork to become a star.