After sharing the backfield last season, Jay Ajayi appears to be in line for a bigger role with the Eagles in 2018. Will he demand a contract commensurate with his status as the primary ball-carrier?
There were a lot of stories floating around when the Eagles acquired Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round draft pick in October. Yet rumors about a selfish athlete who would demand more touches never externalized after the trade, as the Pro Bowl running back worked seamlessly with LeGarrette Blount.
Team culture and locker room chemistry, as one Miami Herald report put it, proved to be non-issues. Now that Ajayi spent 14 incident-free weeks with the Eagles, the story has been altered slightly.
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"But to say a clash of personalities was the only reason the Dolphins dealt Ajayi would be wrong," Adam H. Beasley of the Herald wrote.
"Ajayi, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, was not shy about telling the Dolphins he wanted a contract extension."
The timing of Beasley's report - the morning after the Eagles won the Super Bowl - lends the appearance of damage control. Per NFL rules, Ajayi isn't even eligible to sign an extension until March 2018, so any conversations about a new deal were likely preliminary in nature.
But just because Ajayi was a good soldier in his relatively short time with the Eagles doesn't mean money can't come between them. He's set to earn only $705,000 next season as the team's No. 1 back, having averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 10 games, including playoffs. Blount, by the way, is a free agent.
The trouble is paying Ajayi might be easier said than done. The Eagles have a lot of maneuvering ahead with the salary cap this offseason, and based on current projections, they're actually over the spending limit at the moment.
The cap space dilemma should buy the Eagles some time - at least a few months. But if the organization isn't making progress on a new deal with Ajayi by this summer, it's fair to wonder what the consequences of that might be.
RUNNING BACKS BREAKDOWN
*Ages as of September 2018
2018 Cap Hit: $705,000
The other issue here is Ajayi's health. Some around the NFL feel his right knee is a ticking time bomb, which led to his falling to the fifth round of the 2015 draft and obviously was a factor in the trade. Ajayi possesses amazing short-field burst but visibly labors at the end of long runs. The Eagles may need to placate him financially but should be cautious about the structure of an extension.
2018 Cap Hit: $699,000
If we've learned anything from guys like Nick Foles, Nelson Agholor and Brandon Graham, maybe don't write players off after one or two seasons. Or, in Pumphrey's case, one preseason. A fourth-round pick, Pumphrey looked like a massive disappointment before landing on injured reserve. It was a much-needed redshirt year for the NCAA's all-time rushing leader. He'll get a shot to earn a roster spot as the third back and return specialist.
2018 Cap Hit: $691,000
At this point, Smallwood probably needs a change of scenery. He runs hard but wasn't able to stay healthy his first two seasons in the league, and his opportunity with the Eagles has probably passed. With a clear depth chart already forming, a trade would be beneficial for Smallwood.
2018 Cap Hit: $558k
Another reason the Eagles would hesitate to pay Ajayi: He may not even be the most talented back on the roster. Clement carved out a role as the offense's change of pace in the playoffs, recording 10 receptions for 139 yards with a 55-yard catch in the Super Bowl and a 22-yard receiving TD. He finished with 616 yards from scrimmage as an undrafted rookie, including 172 in the postseason. All appearances are Clement can be a starter in this league.
Sproles reportedly wants to return for his 14th NFL season, and until recently the Eagles were probably very interested. Since Clement emerged as a viable receiver out of the backfield, maybe less so. Money is a factor as well. Sproles was lost for the season to a torn ACL and broken forearm in September.
Prior to his stellar performance in the Super Bowl, Blount was showing signs of slowing down. Over the Eagles' final eight games, including playoffs, he averaged 3.7 yards per carry - 2.9 if you subtract the Super Bowl. Blount is a volume back, and his touches diminished after the trade for Ajayi as well, but the late-season dip in performance is part of a larger trend for this particular aging back.
Re-signed after the injury to Sproles, Barner was primarily used as a specialist, lining up for only one offensive snap in the playoffs. Aside from earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his first game back, he was not an especially dangerous or reliable return man, either.