Are Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake the Best 1-2 Combo in the NFL?

2017-06-03_134338The story has been well documented for Miami Dolphins fans. Jay Ajayi went into the 2016 season feeling like he had a pretty good foothold on the starting running back job. But the Miami Dolphins seemed to have other plans. They tried numerous times to find a replacement and in the end, they settled on the aging and often injured Arian Foster to carry the load.

Ajayi was reportedly upset, and first year coach Adam Gase wanted to send him and the rest of the players a message- it’s not about you, but the team- and he left him in Miami for their Week One trip to Seattle. It only took two weeks and Arian Foster was injured, which meant Ajayi would need to step up. But Gase still didn’t seem sold enough to simply hand the job over. So he continued to rotate in several backs, one series after another, not allowing any back to get a rhythm and losing games in the process.

During that little experiment, one back seemed to stick out a bit, even considering his limited touches. Ajayi averaged 4.0 yards per carry in Week Three against Cleveland on only 7 carries, and 5.5 yards per carry with only 6 carries in Week Four at Cincinnati. So, with nothing to lose and the Dolphins 1-3 at the time, coach Gase decided to give Ajayi the start against Tennessee. However, he still only got 13 carries for 42 yards and the Dolphins lost again, bringing them to 1-4.

Heading into what seemed like a sure loss against Pittsburgh at home, coach Gase decided to commit more heavily to the run game and Ajayi would be the one he would lean on. The rest, as they say, is recent history. J-Train would collect over 200 yards that game on his way to a prolific season, rushing for almost 1,300 yards and averaging one of the NFL’s top YPC at 4.9. He was also one of the league leaders in yards after contact and broken tackles.

This brings us to Kenyan Drake. The rookie out of Alabama wasn’t necessarily a fan favorite from the beginning, many not understanding the pick of someone who was mostly a back-up in his collegiate career. Injury and other great backs ahead of him really kept him from the starting role.

Drake’s role was limited in Miami, but he made the most of his opportunities averaging a whopping 5.5 yards per carry on only 33 total attempts for the season. He shined with dynamic plays and showed an elusiveness that you don’t see much, even at this level.

As we approach the 2017 season many things seem to be falling into place and working in the Dolphins favor that should benefit Ajayi and Drake:

  • A second-year coach past the “rookie” Head Coach phase
  • The second year in this offense for most of the players
  • A deeper O-Line
  • Bye-bye to Thomas and Turner
  • Heading into the season knowing who our starting running back will be
  • Players better understanding their roles

Moving on to the big question, we need to consider several things. Namely, who else could claim the mantel of NFL’s best duo? Let’s peek at the competitors. There are a few good combos out there to be mentioned:

That’s quite a respectable list of possible dynamic pairs. But as you scroll down the list, let’s do some simple deduction. For starters, just standing alone Jay Ajayi is a top five running back in the NFL, which to me eliminates most of these pairs by itself. Also, any pairing I mentioned with a rookie has too many unknowns to qualify at this point.

So, who’s left to debate? The pairs in Tennessee, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Arizona and Seattle are the ones we really should be comparing to Ajayi/Drake. To me, the different skill sets of Miami’s two backs go a long way toward making them more dangerous. A guy in Ajayi who can run through anybody, and a guy in Drake who is one of the fastest and most elusive guys on the field. Who else do you see above with that kind of deadly combination that has shown it on the field?

Atlanta, Dallas and Tennessee may be the closest competition here. Seattle’s combo looks scary, but so many questions surround Eddie Lacy and Rawls’ struggles to stay on the field. Chicago’s pair looks nice, but that team is in a total rebuild and has too many questions.

Dallas has maybe the best back in the NFL but there’s just no way to trust McFadden. I like the combo in Tennessee and think they have done some nice things with the O-Line as well, so they’re close, but I’m not ready to say they’re better than Ajayi and Drake (although I have only my excitement over our guys to say why).

Now, Atlanta was one I thought I would be able to say was better than ours. But as I looked deeper into the numbers, it just isn’t there. Neither Freeman nor Coleman had a better average per carry than either of our backs. Freeman didn’t run for as many yards as Ajayi and started all 16 games. Hard to give them the nod with those facts.

As you can see, the Miami duo stands out as one of the best, if not the best pair of backs in the NFL. Taking a deep dive, there’s not much debate about it. Will it show on the field in 2017? If it does, it’s just another reason Miami should be headed for a playoff run and perhaps see themselves playing deep into January.

You can find Ron Canniff on Twitter @FinsBroadcaster

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