2017 Player vs. Player - Jordan Howard vs. Jay Ajayi

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Fantasy football draft season is upon us and RotoBaller is here to help! In this series, two RotoBaller experts will discuss the merits of two players with similar value and average draft position (ADP). Remember that situations will change for all players over the course of the summer and it may impact where they are selected in drafts.

Our debate is between a pair of surprise breakout running backs from a year ago, Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi. Taylor Maxston makes the case for Howard as the smarter choice, while Pierre Camus pulls for Ajayi as a better value.

If you can't get enough of these Player vs. Player debates, check out RotoBaller's NFL page for more. We've already thrown down on Jordy Nelson vs. Michael ThomasStefon Diggs vs. DeVante ParkerJeremy Maclin vs. Randall Cobb and Evan Engram vs. David Njoku among others with more to come!

Editor's note: Purchase any NFL Lineup Optimizer pass (including daily DFS cheat sheets), and you also get access to NBA and NHL Optimizers and DFS cheat sheets.

 

Opening Statements: Who Do You Draft?

Jordan Howard (RB, CHI) is not Todd Gurley 2.0, he’s a bell-cow on the rise! – Taylor Maxston

How crazy a fantasy football season was 2016 when we saw two rookie running backs finish the year as the top two rushing leaders? Ezekiel Elliott performed at a level expected of the number four overall draft pick, accumulating 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns behind a monstrous Dallas offensive line. However, a little known fifth round selection out of Indiana managed to not only rush for 1,313 yards and 6 touchdowns, but do it when he didn’t have a grasp on the starting job until week four.

Jordan Howard was one of the shining spots on a horrendous Chicago Bears roster that seemingly came out of nowhere to accumulate seven 100+ rushing yard performances and finish as RB-9 in standard scoring. Many people fear a Todd Gurley-esque sophomore slump, seeing as how he is stuck in an offense devoid of playmakers lead by a quarterback who only threw 11 passes last season. I’ll make this abundantly clear: Howard will NOT hit a wall in 2017.

Howard has three keys to success heading into the upcoming fantasy season. First, he has two of the best interior lineman in the NFL in Josh Sitton and Kyle Long beside a top ten center in Cody Whitehair blocking for him. Combine that with the fact that Howard is an exceptional pass blocker (ranked 8th among starting running backs) and you have a three-down player when positional scarcity will make one difficult to find. In addition, the Chicago Bears’ schedule is ranked as the 8th easiest for running backs with plenty of games that could produce a weekly top five fantasy performer. Finally, Howard has a great chance to build on his 2016 success with a full 16 game season in a conservative John Fox offense and a solid spell back in Benny Cunningham keeping him fresh on extended drives.

Jordan Howard has dedicated much of his offseason to becoming the great player fans are expecting him to be, from improving his skills as a receiver to increasing his breakaway speed by slimming down. When you have a running back with a guaranteed workload and many of the same factors that helped him previously succeed (along with a few new ones), I wouldn’t be as hesitant as some to spend a late first round draft pick on “Bear Jordan” to fill my RB1 spot.

 

Jay Ajayi (RB, MIA) was a beast despite several major obstacles and will only be better in 2017! - Pierre Camus

Jay Ajayi finished 2017 as the fourth-leading rusher in the league, yet he may have outperformed every other back ahead of him. Ajayi didn’t truly begin his season until Week 5, when a worn-out Arian Foster finally broke down for good. It took just one game as the starting RB for Ajayi to prove he deserved the job all along. In fact, he was so good it prompted Foster to retire from the league outright in the middle of the season because he knew he wouldn’t see the field again! Ajayi ran for 1,272 yards in 12 starts on the strength of three different 200-yard rushing performances. In the end, he finished just 41 yards shy of Howard on a near-identical number of carries. They both got late starts, dominated when given the chance, and appeared primed for huge seasons ahead. So what differentiates the two?

Miami is in year two of Adam Gase’s reign and should keep improving offensively now that they have a clear identity. Ajayi struggled in a few games down the stretch, not due to his own inefficiency, but because they were missing key parts of the offensive line due to injury. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey is ready to go for training camp and veteran LT Branden Albert was traded to Jacksonville, so those issues should be solved. The addition of tight end Julius Thomas and a re-dedicated DeVante Parker can only help keep defenses honest to clear room for Ajayi up the middle. Gase is known for his sharp offensive mind, so he will find ways to keep Ajayi fresh while getting the best out of him. The two have a close relationship, as Ajayi credits his benching in Week 1 for lighting a fire under him. He still carries that as motivation to this day and will not rest on his laurels simply because he is the undisputed starter this season.

Ajayi finished fifth-highest in the NFL among all running backs in Elusiveness Rating, so he has proven he doesn’t even need a dominant O-line to create big plays. The team plans to incorporate him more into the passing game this year, so if anything his value should shoot up in PPR leagues. With no clear threat to playing time, Ajayi is an obvious RB1 that may outplay his second-round ADP and leapfrog the few running backs being drafted ahead of him.

 

Rebuttals: What Are The Negatives For Each Player?

Jay Ajayi (RB, MIA) will boom or bust based on circumstances out of his control – Taylor Maxston

Although I concede that Jay Ajayi is a more physically talented and elusive player than Jordan Howard, asking him to transcend many of the constraining situational factors around him in the upcoming fantasy football season will be a massive gamble for owners. To put it simply, Ajayi’s range of outcomes alone makes him lower on my draft board than Howard, if only by one or two spots.

We all know that the Miami Dolphins offensive line was in shambles in 2016, with the complete unit only ever starting four games. During those games, Jay Ajayi ran for 608 yards and four touchdowns, averaging an exceptional 6.3 yards per carry. However, the constant reshuffling of starting offensive linemen took its toll on Ajayi’s success as the season wore on. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry when Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey was injured for eight games, with his yards per carry further decreasing to 2.5 in the absence of both left tackle Brandon Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil. A lot of people seem to forget that many analysts expected the 2016 Dolphin’s offensive line to be a solid unit, all around ranking 19th in the NFL heading into the season. Shipping Brandon Albert off to Jacksonville this last offseason was a smart move by the Dolphin’s brass, but the current offensive line has plummeted to 26th in the NFL heading into 2017 with their starting left and right guard spots ranked 35th and 71st at their respective positions. Unless this crew meshes incredibly well together, they will have a difficult time opening up lanes and powering through defenses the same way the healthy 2016 line could.

One major knock against Jordan Howard is that the Chicago Bears’ offense will have a tough time reaching the red-zone, yet the Dolphins’ offense hasn’t exactly been the most prosperous situation for Ajayi either. Although the Dolphins love to run the football under Adam Gase, rushing 44% of the time in 2016 (5th most in the NFL), Miami averaged a mediocre 22.1 points per game while giving Ajayi a pedestrian 56.4% of their red-zone rushing attempts. Compare that to Howard, who received 68.9% of the Chicago Bears’ red-zone rushing attempts and had a similar touchdown efficiency rating to Ajayi.

Looking ahead at Jay Ajayi’s player outlook for the 2017 season, he faces an uphill battle to build on last year’s success. The Dolphins have the 18th ranked strength of schedule for running backs from weeks 1 to 13, plummeting to the 31st ranked in weeks 14 to 16 during playoff time. Deciding on whether to draft Ajayi over Jordan Howard is a question or risk vs. reward, one that can fluctuate wildly based on the situational factors around him. For the time being, Howard is my go-to guy because of consistency and a situation with run blocking that is far superior to the Dolphins.

Jordan Howard (RB, CHI) won't be able to carry his team, or yours - Pierre Camus

The comparison to Todd Gurley entering his second season may be an apt one for Howard. Gurley stepped on the scene in earnest on Week 4 of 2015 and immediately made an impact, rattling off four straight 100-yard games. Opposing defenses weren't prepared for his power-running style, when scouting the Rams previously consisted of honing in on diminutive Tre Mason in the backfield. Gurley went on to earn AP Rookie of the Year honors and was the consensus No. 1 pick in most fantasy drafts last season. He then flopped noticeably as teams were stacking the box early and often, with no regard for the weak schemes of Jeff Fisher's unimaginative game planning and nearly non-existent passing game.

The Bears may not be as bad as last year's Rams, especially in terms of offensive line play, but there are some parallels. Mike Glennon's contract certainly doesn't match his track record, as he owns a 5-13 record, 59% completion percentage, and averages less than 200 pass yards per game (195.2 - even less than Alex Smith). If the Bears get off to a rough start, which is certainly possible given their rough opening slate against the Falcons, Bucs, Steelers, Packers, and Vikings, we could see rookie Mitch Trubisky thrown into action in the second half, just like Jared Goff was. This receiving corps isn't going to draw much attention away from the run game either, as a crew of castoffs from other teams like Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz, and Markus Wheaton join converted QB Cameron Meredith and perennially-injured Kevin White.

Howard will be effective when given opportunities, no doubt, but the question is how much real opportunity he will have. The Dolphins finished with a 1.2 pass/rush ratio last season and they promise to run the ball even more this year to emphasize Jay Ajayi (and keep the ball out of Jay Cutler's hands). The Bears held a 1.6 pass/rush ratio last year, which may not change since they surprisingly chose to use their first-round pick on a QB. In fact, the Bears had the sixth-least rushing attempts among all NFL teams last season. When you are forced to choose between two young, dynamic running back talents such as Howard and Ajayi, the difference comes down to which player has the environment most conducive to offensive production. That promises to be Ajayi, the RB who will be leading a playoff team back to contention while the Bears continue to rebuild.

 

More Player Comparisons


Check out all of RotoBaller's 2017 fantasy football rankings. Staff rankings are updated regularly for all positions and include standard formats, PPR scoring, tiered rankings and dynasty leagues.