Does the Jay Ajayi Injury Doom the Eagles?
Injuries are no fun. Unfortunately, the reality of sports, especially football, is that injuries will occur, and said injuries are likely to have a huge impact on how a season ultimately plays out. Nobody knows this better than the Philadelphia Eagles. In case you somehow forgot, the Eagles lost star quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL last December as the team was preparing for the playoffs. Wentz’ injury ultimately didn’t keep the team from reaching its ultimate goal, however, as Nick Foles eventually led Philly to a shocking upset over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Despite the fact that Wentz was expected to return from his injury early this season, the general betting public was lukewarm on the Eagles’ chances to repeat as Super Bowl champs. And, if the first 5 weeks of the new season are any indication, that skepticism is looking justified. The Eagles were just beaten on their home field by the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5, a defeat that dropped the defending champions to 2-3 on the young season.
To make matters worse, the Eagles were dealt a huge blow when starting running bay Jay Ajayi was lost during the aforementioned game due to injury. An MRI subsequently confirmed that Ajayi suffered a torn ACL. Obviously, that’s a season-ending injury. The Eagles have struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball early in the season, and losing their top rusher certainly won’t help matters. Receivers Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins were already placed on injured reserve with injuries earlier this season, while Ajayi’s backups, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement, have battled nagging injury problems of their own.
Does the loss of Ajayi doom Philly’s Super Bowl hopes?
The odds have not yet been updated to reflect Ajayi’s injury, but you can bet they will be altered in short order. As of this writing, the Eagles are listed at +2000 to win the Super Bowl. Those are the same odds as both the Los Angeles Chargers and Chicago Bears. Only the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Jacksonville Jaguars have better odds.
I would imagine the Eagles will be downgraded once the Ajayi news is processed. They are obviously an excellent value bet, especially considering most of the same players that won it last year have returned, but there are an awful lot of question marks with this team right now. The inability of the current running backs to stay injury-free is clearly a huge problem.
Ajayi was already playing through a hairline fracture in his back, which cannot have been comfortable. Playing football with a broken back seems…difficult? The Eagles weren’t running many run plays to begin with. Philly ran just 4 run plays during the first half of the loss to Minnesota. Ajayi finished the game with just 8 carries for 29 yards, and he also lost an important fumble near the goal line. Head coach Doug Pederson has maintained that it is important for his team to establish the run early in games, but they haven’t been able to do so.
Philadelphia’s offense has been dreadful, which is a stark contrast to last season. The Eagles haven’t scored more than 24 points in any of their games so far this season. This after the team scored at least 24 points in 12 games last season, which led the NFL.
Finding someone to run the football without Ajayi in the fold will be a challenge. Clement and Sproles are expected to return sometime soon, but not necessarily right away. Wendell Smallwood and rookie Josh Adams are currently the only other backs on the roster. Neither of them has much experience of which to speak. Adams has been on the practice squad. Smallwood has 25 carries for 150 yards with a touchdown early on this season.
Could the Eagles dive into the pool of free agents? It’s certainly possible. What about a trade? The team’s Super Bowl window is obviously open right now, so it stands to reason that Philly could be more aggressive in the trade market than a non-contender would be. Few teams in the league boast a true “bell cow” type of back these teams, with most teams opting for a committee-style approach.
The first name that will jump out is Le’Veon Bell. Bell has not played this season for the intrastate rival Pittsburgh Steelers as he continues his contract holdout. The former Pro Bowler has hinted that he may return in Week 8, but we have nothing set in stone on that front.
The Eagles were reportedly interested in a trade for Bell before Ajayi went down, so it would make sense to suggest that their interest may have piqued by now. Bell would need to sign his franchise tender with the Steelers in order to be traded, as well. Philadelphia doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage here considering everybody knows they’re ultra-thin at running back.
Pittsburgh’s asking price has likely come down since the beginning of the season, but a trade for Bell still wouldn’t come cheap. The Eagles would also have to move some contract around in order to squeeze in the running back’s hefty salary if a deal were to be consummated. The Eagles restructured the contract of Fletcher Cox on Monday, but that was reportedly planned before Ajayi was lost.
If the asking price is too high for the Eagles, there are other backs around the league that would come with cheaper price tags. One is Lions running back Ameer Abdullah, who has not found his footing in the league after being a highly-touted prospect out of Nebraska a couple of years ago. Detroit has a bevy of running backs already seeing the field. LeGarrette Blount is the goal line back, while Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick also see consistent touches. That leaves Abdullah on the outside looking in. He was active for the first time this season in the Week 5 win over the Packers, but all he did was return one kick. He did not see the field on offense.
Abdullah, 25, has only averaged 3.8 yards per carry in his 3-plus seasons as a pro. He’s not the biggest back in the world, and he hasn’t shown a whole lot in terms of receiving to this point, either. Trading for Abdullah would likely not cost the Eagles much of anything, but there also isn’t much reason to believe he would be a major difference-maker in Philadelphia, either. Blount, who helped the Eagles win it all last year, is another potential option, especially if the Lions fall out of the playoff race as the season progresses.
A guy like Tevin Coleman would make more sense. Coleman has spent the last several seasons serving as the Robin to Devonta Freeman’s Batman with the Falcons. Freeman has battled some injuries this season, which has led to more offensive involvement for Coleman. Coleman, 25, has carried the ball 61 times this season for 225 yards with a touchdown.
Of course, the Falcons don’t have a whole lot of impetus to part ways with the Indiana product. Freeman’s injury issues combined with the fact that the Falcons like to put Coleman in there as a change-of-pace kind of back is a staple of the team’s offense. On the flip side, Atlanta is off to a disastrous 1-4 start this season. If they ultimately decide that the writing is on the wall and they won’t be competing this season, perhaps the Falcons could decide to flip a few of their veteran players in order to secure some future draft assets.
Of the 3 names mentioned here, I think Coleman is the most likely to find his way to Philadelphia this season. The Falcons are on the verge of being buried in the top-heavy NFC South, so they may as well get a useful draft pick for their efforts as they try to reload ahead of next season. Coleman isn’t any sort of game-changer on his own, but he would at least potentially give the Eagles some stability in the backfield.
Super Bowl Hopes Dashed?
Even before Ajayi was hurt the Eagles weren’t looking like a Super Bowl-caliber team. The offense has been sluggish due in part to the fact that Wentz is still working his way back from his own ACL injury. There were always going to be some growing pains with Wentz during his recovery, It’s not like Wentz has played poorly, but the Eagles have been routinely blowing good opportunities.
One big issue for this team has been the play of the offensive line. Lane Johnson, who was an All-Pro tackle last season, gave up the sack in Week 5 that resulted in a Linval Joseph touchdown going the other way. Jason Peters, a 36-year-old coming off a devastating knee injury, has looked his age so far this season. Isaac Seumalo was replaced as the No. 1 left guard before ultimately reclaiming his job a few weeks later.
The names along the Eagles O-line suggest that there’s no reason for this unit to struggle. Unforced penalties and other silly mistakes have left the team 2-3 to this point. At some point, I do expect the O-line to find its rhythm and get back to respectability.
For now, I can’t advocate the Eagles repeating as champions. The Ajayi injury isn’t the primary reason for that, but it is just one of many. The NFC being far more stacked than the AFC also doesn’t help matters. On the flip side, the NFC East is likely the weakest of the 4 divisions in the conference. Are the Giants, Redskins or Cowboys winning this division? That seems doubtful.
Still, with the way teams like the Rams and Chiefs have looked in the season’s early stages, it’s tough to put your eggs in the Eagles’ basket. The betting value on Philadelphia at +2000 speaks for itself, but until the team turns things around I can’t advocate putting money on them. Maybe things will change if they manage to nab Le’Veon Bell, but this team looks more like a work-in-progress than a defending Super Bowl champion at this point.