After the departure of Lamar Miller during the 2016 offseason, many thought Ajayi would swoop in and start for the Dolphins. But the Dolphins went out and signed Foster in free agency. His dynamic skill-set and reliability proved too much for the then second-year running back to overcome. Ajayi was relegated to a complementary role and wasn't even active for Week 1.
Then came the explosion. After being the back up through Week 4, Ajayi ran for 42 yards and a touchdown in his first start on October 9 against the Tennessee Titans. The next week, he erupted for 204 yards and two scores. Ajayi did it again in Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills, piling up 214 yards and a score on 28 carries.
The secret was out. Ajayi ran for 111 yards and scored again in Week 9. He went six weeks without eclipsing 100 yards again, before posting 206 yards in Week 16 for the playoff-bound Dolphins. Last season, Miami went 4-0 when Ajayi eclipsed 100 yards. The Dolphins were 8-0 when Ajayi had more than 18 carries in a game.
Those stats aren't missed by Gase, who was the one that decided in September to leave Ajayi in Miami for that Week 1 matchup. One of Ajayi's teammates told the Miami Herald at the time that Ajayi was upset about losing his starting job to Foster.
In November, Gase was back on the Ajayi train, saying that he was "never going to go away from him."
This offseason is a little bit different. You could say the running back is on Gase's good side. The coaching staff is touting his improved pass-catching ability and hinting at an increase in carries.
"Jay has really done a great job of taking the lead with that group and becoming really our bell cow running back," Gase said Monday after Dolphins OTAs. "Those other guys are all trying to figure out 'Where do I fit in best for us?' They're all ready to go if something would happen and they had to be the next guy. I really like that group and love the way they're working right now."
Last season Ajayi led the running backs room with 260 rushing attempts. He had 287 touches overall. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was second in that category with 39 rushing attempts. Damien Williams had 35 carries, followed by Kenyan Drake (33) and Foster (22).
This year the Dolphins still have Ajayi, Williams and Drake. The franchise also has Storm Johnson, Senorise Perry and De'veon Smith on its current roster. Johnson and Perry are in on futures contracts, while Smith was an undrafted free agent.
"I think it's a very, very tight group," Gase said. "That whole group, they're happy for each other's success. If one guy is not on the field, you never see a guy standing by himself upset he's not in the game. They are always kind of in it for each other. It's pretty cool to watch over this last year then heading into the spring, how much they pull for each other. I think we've started something good last year with our running game."
A bigger workload for Ajayi only means good things for the running back's fantasy value and the Dolphins' success. With the re-signing of Kenny Stills and arrival of Julius Thomas, expect Ajayi to see more running room and the team to complete more third down opportunities. When opposing defenses key on the third-year back, Tannehill will see more weapons than in the past to lean on in his progressions. Ajayi is rumored to be looking at around 350 carries. The running back has maintained all offseason that he's ready to run the rock even more in 2017.
"I'm ready for it," Ajayi told reporters on May 23. "I prepare myself every season to take a huge workload and be able to carry the team, and I think I'm ready for that. If that's what he wants to do then that's what we'll do; but every time I step out on that field, it's to put my all out there on the line. So whatever we do, that's what we'll do."
No Dolphins running back had eclipsed 1,200 yards since Ricky Williams ran for 1,371 yards in 2003. Williams ran for a league-high 1,853 yards in 2002, earning an All-Pro nod.
In May, Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Cristensen mentioned that Ajayi's receiving skills are "200 percent better than a year ago..." On Monday, the running back had no trouble in catching some errant throws in a South Florida thunderstorm. He looked to have a sure set of mitts, despite not wearing gloves.
Ajayi ran for 1,272 yards and eight scores in 2017. He had an average of 20.1 carries in his 12 starts. That rushing total was the third-most in franchise history.
If Ajayi gets 350 carries, that would mean an increase of only one or two carries per game. But if Ajayi cracks 350 carries and rushes for an identical 4.9 yards per tote this season, he would produce 1,715 yards in 16 starts. With his improved hands, it wouldn't be a huge stretch to see the running back eclipse 200 receiving yards. He had 151 yards last season on 27 catches.
The 2016 Pro Bowl selection is locked in as an RB1 heading into your fantasy football draft, if you are in a league with at least 12 teams. He is a fringe RB1 in 10-team leagues. After David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy and a few stud wide receivers are off of the board, don't hesitate to pull the trigger in the first round for the Dolphins' weapon.
Ajayi and the Dolphins start the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers allowed the fourth-most yards in the NFL to opposing running backs last season. In Week 2, the Dolphins face the Los Angeles Chargers, a team that allowed the second-most touchdowns to running backs in the AFC in 2016. Ajayi then has a stretch facing three stellar run defenses from 2016, in the New York Jets twice and the Tennessee Titans, from Week 3 through Week 7.