Ajayi is highly capable as a receiver out of the backfield. He’s consistent catching passes on dumpoff routes. After the catch he will make the first defender miss and gain extra yards. He can catch the ball from strange angles, and make diving catches. Something I really like about the second play above is how he mirrors the QB as the QB moves to his right, which allows the QB to dump the ball off to avoid the sack. As you can see from the play in the Ole Miss game, he is also capable of holding on to the catch while receiving big hits.
In my opinion, the most impressive part of Ajayi’s game relative to other prospects is his blocking. On cut blocks, he nearly always takes the defender’s legs out from underneath him, which is what you’re asking for there. The third play above is particularly impressive to me because his responsibility is to help chip on the two pass rushers to the left of the QB, but he recognizes the unblocked blitzer and is able to get over to the other side of the QB in time to make the block. The QB had already thrown the ball, but that could have saved a sack.
On the fourth play, he shows very good technique, delivering a nice punch to the blitzing LB. Ajayi’s blocking ability is important because it means he can be immediately trusted as a third down back on the next level.
Runs too Upright/Fails to get drive with his legs
One of the biggest concerns I have about Ajayi is that he runs too tall a decent amount of the time. He has the size and strength to be very powerful, but there are a number of situations on his tape where he is so upright that he gets driven back by defenders. As you can see from the first section, when he gets low and drives his legs he can push piles, however, he got knocked down or stopped in his tracks far too often for someone of his size. This is something that will need to be fixed at the next level for him to be successful.
Some of the above could just be called well defended runs, but they show another detrimental tendency that Ajayi has: he dances around in the backfield. Unlike someone like Abdullah, who is all business and gets upfield as soon as possible, Ajayi will spend too much time looking for the perfect hole to open and either get driven into the sideline or tackled in the backfield.
A corollary to his tendency to dance in the backfield is the fact that he tends to run East-West far too often. If there’s not something there on the inside, he will immediately run for the edge. Now, he’s fast enough that this works out for him sometimes, but there were also a number of times where players stopped him in the backfield because he couldn’t find space. If he can’t get it together and find open holes to run through, he going to have a lot more negative runs on the next level, which is concerning.
Ajayi also had a pretty big problem with fumbles. He doesn’t hold the ball out at weird angles, but defenders were still able to pop the ball out of his grasp rather often (seven times during his senior season). Ball security is very important for obvious reasons, and it should be a concern for NFL teams.
Ajayi’s best trait is the fact that he is ready to come in and be a complete RB. Almost every RB out of college is going to be ready to come in and run the ball, but Ajayi is also going to complementary as a receiver and a blocker. As a runner, I really like his physical ability. He is powerful when running and very nimble, especially for his size.
However, I do not believe Ajayi is close to being the top overall RB in the class. I would put a significant gap between my top 3 backs (Gurley, Gordon, and Abdullah) and Ajayi. This is because I’m not sold on Ajayi’s vision. He dances around too much in the backfield and waits too much for the hole in front of him to be perfect. He takes the ball East-West instead of North-South far too often. He was able to overcome these errors in college because he was more physically gifted than the other players on the field, but he will not be as successful doing the same thing in the NFL. If he goes to a team with a good offensive line that will open up running room for him, he should be very successful. However, if he goes to a team with a poor OL, he might end up looking like Trent Richardson.
Pro Comparison and Draft Projection
Pro Comparison: This is an incredibly lofty projection, but with refinement I think Ajayi has the potential to be someone like Steven Jackson. He doesn’t have top end speed, but he is powerful and can contribute in the passing game, while blocking really well. Whether or not he reaches that potential will be determined by whether or not he can become more decisive as a runner at the pro level. If he doesn’t reach that potential, he might end up becoming someone more like Mikel Leshoure: a guy get decent chunks of yards every time but never has a spark as a runner.
Draft Projection: I expect him to be taken in the late second/early third.