The league as we know it is changing for the better. Teams are spending more of their cap space to sign franchise quarterbacks and pay star players at other critical positions. Because of that, it is more important than ever to have good running backs on cheap rookie contracts.
Many of the leagues best running backs are still on rookie contracts; David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliot, Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley just to name a few. Two other good young runners, Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi and Bears’ Jordan Howard, are looking to take the next step forward and establish themselves as star running backs. Injuries to the established starters allowed both of these running backs a chance to shine and be rewarded with a 2016 Pro Bowl selection.
Jay Ajayi is a grown ass man. pic.twitter.com/WDmvgKXecg
— Michael Kist (@MichaelJKist) July 9, 2017
Based on current ADP both Howard and Ajayi are going as late first/early second round picks in 12 team leagues. Ajayi is currently drafted as RB7 and Howard is currently RB8. I believe both runners are top 15 fantasy picks but I’d much rather have one over the other, but first let’s look at the pros and cons for both runners.
After a disappointing rookie season, Ajayi got off to a slow start in 2016 but took off with the starting job after Arian Foster got hurt in week three. Finishing the season with 260 carries for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns, Ajayi looks on his way to stardom. Thanks to a balanced offense that features a solid passing game centered around Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, defenses can’t afford to stack the box with eight defenders against Ajayi very often.
However, Ajayi has a few concerns that worry me. Ajayi has an injury history; missing 25% of his games during his first two years in the league. Coming out of Boise State in 2015, Ajayi slid to the fifth round after many teams took him off their draft boards due to concerns of lingering knee issues. Now while Ajayi played 15 games last season, can he hold up for a full season again? Secondly, Ajayi had three 200 plus yard games in 2016 and averaged 29 fantasy points per game in those three games. However, in the other 12 games of the season he only averaged 54 yards and 8.4 fantasy points per game.
A major part in Ajayi’s inconsistency is centered around the health of Mike Pouncey. The 2012 season was the last time Pouncey played all 16 games and last season he was only healthy for five games. Two of Ajayi’s 200 plus yard games came with Pouncey on the field. In the five games Pouncey played, Ajayi averaged 130 yards and 19.5 fantasy points per game. In comparison, the 10 games Ajayi played without Pouncey, he averaged 62 yards and 9.1 fantasy points per game. It’s clear to say, Pouncey makes a big impact on Ajayi’s play.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 15, 2017
Third concern with Ajayi is his lack of work in the passing game. In 2016 Ajayi had only 35 targets, catching 27 of them and no receiving touchdowns. Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams combined for 32 catches on 41 targets in 2016, both remain on the roster. Drake is a best receiving back on the team and the Dolphins expect him to take the next step forward in his development this season. Between Drake and Williams, it limits Ajayi’s upside in the passing game.
Expect to see more big runs in Jordan Howard's future. pic.twitter.com/jPKrppf1GH
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 17, 2017
As a 2016 fifth round pick, much wasn’t expect out of Howard early on but with Matt Forte signing with the Jets in the offseason, someone had to step up into feature back role. Many people believed that was going to be Jeremy Langford, coming off a strong rookie showing of his own, but when he suffered an ankle injury in week three it opened the door for the rookie. Howard ended the season with 252 carries for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns. Over the last nine games of the season, Howard finished the season strong rushing for at least 77 yards in each game.
There is only on real concern for Howard is his poor situation. The Bears don’t have any proven weapons on offense and the quarterback situation is shaky at best. Defenses are going to key in on Howard and be determined to stop the run. With an average offensive line at best, expect Howard’s 5.2 yards per carry in 2016 to drop this season.
Pure strength shown by Jordan Howard. pic.twitter.com/CPd7tomHj5
— 360°FantasyFootball (@360FFB) July 9, 2017
Much like Todd Gurley last season, Howard could face a sophomore slump thanks to a suspect offensive line and poor quarterback play. The Bears aren’t expected to win many games this year and might struggle to score points. While Howard did have 29 catches on 50 targets as a rookie, he isn’t a dynamic receiving back. When the Bears are trailing this season, which could be often, they will likely use pass catching back rookie Tarik Cohen, limiting Howard’s upside in the passing game.
I expect Ajayi to be more consistent as the Dolphins have stated that they want to focus even more on the run this season. Hopefully with a more determined running game and a healthy Pouncey, Ajayi can become more consistent in his week-to-week production. However, given Howard’s clear focal point of the offense and his strong rookie season with no serious injury concerns, I would take him over Ajayi.
Neither player is a bad option and both are currently ranked in my top ten running backs for both standard and PPR leagues. Don’t hesitate to take either player in the first two rounds of your draft.