Back in the summer, the Dolphins hoped Chris McCain would seize the open starting linebacker job and Jay Ajayi would seize on his chance to be the No. 2 running back.
Neither materialized, McCain losing out to Kelvin Sheppard, and Ajayi landing on short-term injured reserve with a broken rib, following an uneven training camp.
Now, both hope to provide a boost in the second half of the season.
McCain figures to get some playing time with the season-ending loss of Cam Wake to an Achilles injury.
Ajayi hopes to be activated for Sunday’s game at Buffalo, though interim coach Dan Campbell was non-committal about that today.
The Dolphins moved McCain from linebacker to defensive end when Campbell took over as coach nearly a month ago. McCain said he initially learned about the position switch from a fan on Twitter, then confirmed it with Campbell the next day.
He’s happy about the switch because at defensive end “there’s not too much thinking. You can play freely and loose…. That’s what we all wanted. That’s what we’re getting under [Campbell].”
Because McCain thought he would be playing linebacker, he dropped from 257 to 243 pounds over the past several months. Now he’s trying to get back to 257 so he’s better equipped to play defensive end.
“I still have a lot to work on,” he said. “I was preparing to be a linebacker.”
Undrafted out of California, McCain impressed when given the chance last season, producing a sack and a blocked punt in his first NFL game. (That was his only sack in 10 games last year and the only one of his career.) But he has played only a handful of plays on defense this season and has been inactive for four of Miami’s seven games.
“The frustrating part is you hear all week you’ve been doing good,” he said. With Wake out, “I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Campbell said the need to create roster space on game days for special-teams players has led to McCain being inactive for more than half the games.
But Campbell repeatedly mentioned McCain as a player who will compensate for the loss of Wake.
“I think you play to his strength,” Campbell said. “What we do know about him or we feel pretty good about -- and most of it obviously is practice -- is that he can rush the passer a little bit. And he’s a pretty good athlete. He’s kind of a long, lengthy guy. There’s a few things you can do with him but certainly rushing the passer is something that he can be in for.”
As for Ajayi, the Dolphins said they have until next Wednesday to place him on the 53-man roster. Otherwise, he would be required to sit out the season.
He’s eligible to play Sunday, but Campbell was non-committal about that today.
“Now that decision, if it’s made, won’t be for a while. But certainly we are looking at him. We’re looking at everybody. That’s what I would tell you. He’s improving right now,” Campbell said. “I guess we have basically another week or over until we have to absolutely make a decision. But at this point we can if we would like to activate him this week he will be eligible to do that. We don’t want to do it right now until we know for sure.”
Lasting until the fifth round wasn’t what Ajayi envisioned after setting an NCAA record last season. Nor, for that matter, was spending the first 10 weekends of his NFL career on injured reserve.
Now rested and healed from broken ribs, Ajayi is eager to show other teams precisely what they missed out on when they passed on him several times in the NFL Draft.
Ajayi was third-team Associated Press All-American at Boise State in 2014, ranked fifth in the country with 1823 yards rushing and became the first player in major college football history to have 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season.
Some draft pundits rated him third among the draft’s running back prospects, behind Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. Instead, he ended up the 13th running back selected, sliding to the fifth round before Miami plucked him 149th.
Ajayi’s stock dropped because has missing cartilage in his right knee, a condition known as “bone-on-bone,” raising concerns about how long he will play in the NFL. Ajayi and his agent have downplayed those concerns.
Being passed up repeatedly in the draft “will always be my motivation,” he said this week. “I always play with a chip on my shoulder. When that happened, it changed a lot of things for me. It definitely opened my eyes, just motivated me a lot more to want to succeed, to accomplish my goals and dreams.
“I’m here, I’m eligible now. I’m ready to play. I hope it happens [Sunday]. I know I will be full of emotions and excited to play.”
Ajayi, born in London, struggled initially in training camp, particularly with pass protection, but impressed in the preseason finale against Tampa Bay, rushing for 66 yards on nine carries before breaking his rib.
He said his pass protection has “improved” since his struggles in training camp.
As a member of the scout team, Ajayi has been running against the first team defense since returning to practice three weeks ago.
“My mindset has been to attack it like I’m playing another team's No. 1 defense and go at it with everything I’ve got,” he said.
The Dolphins originally did not plan to place him on short-term IR but changed their mind when they claimed quarterback Logan Thomas off waivers from Arizona. But Thomas lasted just a week on the 53-man roster; he’s now on the practice squad. Ajayi said he would have been ready to play in the third regular-season game.
Dolphins officials believe Ajayi has the ability to be a three-down back and like both his pass-catching abilities and the physical, downhill running style that he displayed often at Boise State, but only in flashes during training camp.
Ajayi would seem to be an appealing option on goal-line runs. Last season, Ajayi led all college running backs with 25 red zone touchdowns and had the second-most red zone rushing yards (299, on 2.74 per carry).
According to ESPN’s KC Joyner, Ajayi and Melvin Gordon were the only two running backs that broke at least 60 tackles last season.
While he has been sidelined, Ajayi has drawn support from other rookie running backs. He’s part of a group that exchanges text messages, usually at least one a day.
The seven others were all drafted ahead of him: St. Louis’ Todd Gurley, San Diego’s Gordon, Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson, Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman, San Francisco’s Mike Davis and Baltimore’s Javorius “Buck” Allen. Ajayi is particularly close with Gordon, having trained with him before the NFL Combine.
“We’re all in constant communication,” Ajayi said. “We’re cheering each other on,… following each other. We feel very strongly about our rookie running back class. Now we’re like a fraternity.
“I’ve kind of been the guy in the back just watching everyone because I’ve been out. I shot them a text, ‘I’m able to play this week,’ I’m excited to be added back into the conversation, have something to say. Everyone has been very supportive in that group.”
While the Dolphins have been playing games, Ajayi likes to “visualize myself throughout the whole game of doing the same things Lamar [Miller] has been doing. It’s been great to see him take off. I definitely want to be an added component to this running game.
“This is a dream come true for me, the NFL. For it to have happened this way, with an injury starting off, that’s not what I expected. At the same time, I’m still very excited for my career, still very motivated to prove a lot of things to myself that I feel I want to accomplish.”