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NFL Draft

Can Packers Pay And Build Around Aaron Jones?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 11, 2020
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While running backs continue to be devalued in the pass-happy, high-octane NFL, a great running back can help create an offense’s identity and provide an obvious aid to the quarterback. 

We’ve seen the Seattle Seahawks reach the height of their success with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield and recently the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey reset the running back market with his record-breaking four-year, $64 million contract. While the Seahawks, to a fault, continue to establish the run instead of utilizing their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Russell Wilson and McCaffrey’s deal skews impending running back deals, the question remains: can teams build around (and pay) a running back? Or better worded: should they?

The Green Bay Packers are facing that dilemma in ongoing negotiations with Aaron Jones. Jones is in the last year of his four-year rookie contract. He adamantly expressed wanting to be a “lifelong Packer” and has the resume to ask for a hefty new deal from Green Bay’s front office. Jones is coming off the best season of his career; he finished 2019 with 1,558 yards from scrimmage and an NFL-leading 19 touchdowns (and a franchise-leading 23 with four postseason scores). It sets Jones up for a big payday, but it could be one the Packers cannot afford.

It’s unrealistic to think Green Bay can pay him his market value, continue to build its offense and secure other notable free agents after the 2020 season. Something’s got to give.

Jones' agents, Chris Cabott, confirmed in late May that both parties are in ongoing negotiations and Green Bay’s willingness to entertain and sign Jones to a big figure is great, in theory, but its execution is still unknown. Jones is slated to make $2.13 million in 2020. If Jones keeps up the production, he can command top-five running back money—placing him alongside the Houston Texans’ David Johnson ($13 million per year) and the New York Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($13.1 million per year) at the bottom end of the top five. Jones’ current market value is $13.1 million per year and when looking at similar contracts for Bell, McCaffery, and the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot, Spotrac estimated a four-year, $53.16 million dollar extension with an average salary of $13.29 million. 

It’s going to be tough for the Packers to commit that much money with more of their starters hitting the free-agent market next year. Green Bay has to consider impending extensions for All-Pro offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, Pro Bowl nose tackle Kenny Clark, starting center Corey Linsley and starting cornerback Kevin King.

Where does Jones fit in? He’s flourished under head coach Matt LaFleur’s system. In Jones’ first two seasons with the Packers, under former head coach Mike McCarthy, he topped out at just over 130 carries and right under 730 rushing yards. He wasn’t utilized in the passing game either and had a combined 35 receptions for 228 yards and one touchdown from 2017-18; Jones nearly doubled every receiving category in 2019 with 49 catches for 474 yards and three scores. He was undoubtedly the star in Green Bay’s backfield last season but now the Packers have brought in and return reinforcements.

Green Bay will have Jamaal Williams, who missed two games last season battling a hamstring injury, and LaFleur has expressed the need for both players and a potential third running back to help handle the workload. The Packers selected Boston College’s A.J. Dillon with their 62nd overall pick in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Dillion will join Jones, Williams and 2019 sixth-round pick Dexter Williams on the RB depth chart. Jones should continue to be the star out of the three- or four-back room and the focus of the Packers’ rushing attack.

Dillion can complement Jones’ explosiveness and speed with his own powerful style. Last season, Jones showed his ability to find space and produce yards after catch against some of the tougher defensive schemes. With eight-plus defenders in the box, he still won. His 5.2 yards per rush in those sticky situations no coach, or running back, really want to be in was second-best behind the San Francisco 49ers’ Raheem Mostert

Jones’ cut-and-go ability and quick-hitting style fits into LaFleur’s outside zone scheme. LaFleur himself said he wanted to utilize multiple backs, which negates the argument that Dillion is Jones’ replacement. 

Alas, similar to how LaFleur shook the football landscape drafting quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ replacement this year, he could decide to invest more into the offensive line and hope other, cheaper running backs can produce at Jones’ level next year. I wouldn’t be surprised either way; Jones warrants a big payday. He deserves it, but the Packers could instead decide to create space for Jordan Love to eventually thrive.

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