This week in the Fantasy Spotlight we focus on two running backs that exploded onto the scene in 2016, both finishing in the top five in rushing yards. Both Jay Ajayi and Jordan Howard entered the 2016 season near the middle of their respective depth charts. However, injuries opened the door for both to put up very good fantasy seasons. In the Fantasy Spotlight this week we pit the two high-risk/high-reward candidates against each other to see who is the better fantasy draft pick.
2017 Fantasy Spotlight: Jay Ajayi vs Jordan Howard
(note: ADP and Stats courtesy of fantasypros.com and playerprofiler.com)
Jay Ajayi– Miami Dolphins
2016 Final Fantasy Running Back Ranking: 11th
Current ADP: 15th
Strength of Schedule: 18th
Entering 2016, Jay Ajayi was stuck behind Arian Foster on the Miami Dolphins depth chart and he made it clear he wasn’t happy about that. The situation with him and his head coach Adam Gase was a big enough problem that Ajayi was told to stay home for the Dolphins week one matchup in Seattle. An injury to Foster would open the door for Ajayi to take the lead job for Miami. Ajayi got off to a slow start, running for only 117 combined yards in four games from week two-five. Week six against the Pittsburgh Steelers will forever be known as his coming out party. The newly-minted starter torched a suspect Pittsburgh Steelers defense for 204 yards on 25 carries and scored twice. This was a huge high in a very up and down season for Ajayi.
- Three 200+ yard rushing games in 2016
- Fourth in rushing with 1,272 yards
- Fourth with 15 breakaway runs (15 yards or more)
- Ninth in evaded tackles (69)
- 484 yards after contact, third best in 2016
Ajayi can play in this league, there is no question about it. He has the explosiveness and power that is needed to be successful in this league. His 484 yards after contact show that he can take a hit and keep on moving. Any time a running back can put together three separate 200+ yard performances, fantasy players are sure to take notice. Ultimately, the question will be can Ajayi sustain RB1 production over the course of a full 16 game season.
- Fifth worst run blocking offensive line in 2016
- 14.4 fantasy points per game, 15th best last season
- Eight games with 60 or less rushing yards
- 20th in red zone carries
- 54th against a stacked defensive front
- Threat to lose touches on passing downs
A fellow colleague of mine likes to refer to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson as “feast or famine.” After his 2016 season many would say Ajayi is the running back version of Jackson. While his 200 yard performances are impressive, the eight games of 60 yards or less are not. Those three games against the Steelers and Buffalo Bills accounted for nearly half of Ajayi’s rushing production. Four of his nine rushing touchdowns came in those games. Lack of production in the red zone and the threat of Kenyan Drake and Damian Williams in the passing game are knocks against Ajayi.
Jordan Howard– Chicago Bears
2016 Final Fantasy Running Back Ranking: 10th
Current ADP: 13th
Strength of Schedule: 8th
Jordan Howard was the forgotten rookie of 2016. With the history breaking seasons put up by fellow rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, Howard’s success was almost an afterthought. He started the year as the backup to Jeremy Langford, but injuries to Langford handed Howard the lead role in Chicago, one he would never relinquish. Howard ran for 1,313 yards, averaged over five yards per carry and scored seven total touchdowns. Pretty good numbers for a back who made his first career start in week four.
- Eighth easiest schedule for running backs in 2017
- Third with 16 breakaway runs
- 430 yards after contact fifth best in 2016
- Sixth best with 73 evaded tackles
- Ran behind the fifth best run blocking offensive line last season
- Finished in the top ten (9th) for fantasy points per game (15.4) by a running back
Let it be known that Howard, like Ajayi, will not surprise anyone in year two as its team’s starting back. Profootballfocus.com list the Bears with the fifth best offensive line heading into 2017. The Bears traded for Mike Glennon and drafted Mitchell Trubisky to replace long time quarterback Jay Cutler, leaving Howard to be the focal point of the Bears offense. Howard gets a soft schedule to attack in his second year including games against the defensively starved NFC South.
- Lack of production in the passing game
- Caught only 58 percent of passing targets in 2016
- Only managed 6.4 percent of his carries against a seven man front
- Gurley like slump?
- Team playing from behind
A huge knock on Howard was lack of involvement in the Bears passing attack last season. The Bears signed pass-catching specialist Benny Cunningham in the off-season, drafted Tarik Cohen and still have Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey fighting for roster spots. Howard could be hurt most in PPR leagues if he loses touches on passing downs. The Bears are expected to be on the wrong side of most games and will most likely be playing from behind, which could eliminate Howard.
Both of these running backs are high-risk/high-reward backs. If you are sitting with the tenth, 11th or 12th pick in your fantasy draft, you are most likely staring both Howard and Ajayi in the face. What do you do? Who do you pick? Do you pass on both? Let the fantasy spotlight lead you in the right direction. If Jordan Howard is available, he is your guy. Take what you saw last year and raise it up a notch. Howard was extremely consistent, and while Ajayi was video game-like at times, he was too “feast or famine” for our liking.