The Miami Dolphins were only ever going as far as Jay Ajayi could carry them in 2017, even before the franchise was rocked by Ryan Tannehill‘s knee injury Thursday.

The Dolphins reportedly fear Tannehill needs season-ending surgery, though no decision has been made, and he could attempt to rest the injury instead.

But whatever path the Dolphins and Tannehill take, the pivot is all but certain to miss the start of the regular season, which is less than five weeks away. That means Ajayi has no margin for error.

Miami desperately needs its starting running back to hit the ground running – from the first second of the regular season – if the team is to have any chance of making the playoffs. Now, more than ever.

Related: 5 options for Dolphins if Tannehill misses time with injury

Ajayi’s breakout season was one of the biggest – and most surprising – storylines of 2016. As a 23-year-old, he didn’t even begin the year as the starter; in fact, he was left behind in Week 1 by head coach Adam Gase due to how he handled the team making Arian Foster the No. 1 back over him.

But Foster dealt with injuries and retired at midseason, and Ajayi took full advantage of his newfound opportunity. He became just the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to post back-to-back 200-yard games in Weeks 5 and 6, and also produced a third 200-yard performance later in the season.

In those games, Ajayi’s sky-high potential was on full display. But while the running back recorded 1,200 rushing yards across 12 starts, he was also wildly inconsistent.

If you remove his three 200-yard performances, Ajayi’s per-game rushing average for 2016 drops to 63 yards – nowhere near the kind of production expected from a lead back with no real threat to his touches.

Now, some of the blame has to be placed on the Dolphins’ offensive line, which was ravaged by injuries, and consequently was unable to open up holes for Ajayi like earlier in the year.

And when Ajayi gets holes, great things happen.

During this 53-yard gain against the Buffalo Bills, Ajayi took a quick peek at the gap between the right guard and the right tackle before correctly bouncing outside. The third-year pro’s agility is evident, as he first made a quick cut to beat a defender in the hole and then shimmied his way through two Bills on the second level, perfectly timing a stiff arm before bursting downfield for a big gain.

Speed. Quickness. Balance. Toughness. Vision.

Ajayi has it all.

Even when the offensive line allowed penetration – and it happened with increasing frequency – Ajayi showed he’s among the league’s rare breed of backs who can make something out of nothing:

But for every play Ajayi made in spite of his blocking, there was another when he was unable to conjure up magic:

The health of center Mike Pouncey, the Dolphins’ best offensive lineman and premier run-blocker, is vital to Ajayi’s success. That doesn’t mean Ajayi can’t perform solidly without a good O-line, but even potential superstar runners need help – just look at Ezekiel Elliott.

And sure, it’ll be tougher for Ajayi if Tannehill misses significant time, but great backs persevere – and produce – in difficult circumstances.

After teasing himself as one of the NFL’s next great runners, it’s time for Ajayi to cement his position and reinvigorate the Dolphins’ hopes for 2017.

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