More so last season than any other since joining the roster, Aaron Jones was a consistent staple of the Green Bay Packers’ offense. The third-year back finally received the touches craved by fans and media personnel alike and he rewarded them by becoming one of the NFL’s most productive backs. Jones finished the season with 19 total touchdowns while breaking the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time as a pro and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
A stellar season, however, leads to questions about Jones’ long-term outlook in a green and gold uniform as he enters a contract year.
Jones’ value in NFL circles increased as the season went along and he may have priced himself out of Green Bay. Although the running back position may not be as valued as it once was, a back like Jones, who has displayed home-run potential as a runner and capable hands as a receiver, still carries weight in free agency. It was a breakthrough season for Jones in both regards, accounting for more than 1,500 yards of total offense, and at just 25 years of age he has plenty of tread left on his tires.
For an offense that was clearly devoid of explosive playmakers a season ago, it would be more than reasonable for the Packers to keep Jones around. But after the splashes Green Bay made defensively in free agency last season and the need to acquire talent at both tight end and receiver this offseason, money to invest in a running back, a generally more expendable position, could be tougher to come by. Jones surely would command north of the $5 million per year contracts given to Tevin Coleman and Mark Ingram last offseason on the open market, but less than the $10 million annual salary given to Le’Veon Bell by New York. The age is right for Green Bay to lock Jones up, but his injury history could be a red flag to be considered along with the potential expense.
However, if Green Bay lets Jones walk, what is the backup plan?
Also scheduled to hit free agency after next season is second-stringer Jamaal Williams, who was selected in the same 2017 NFL Draft as Jones. Though initially drafted higher, Williams has settled into third-down and short-yardage roles in Jones’ shadow. While Williams has some value to Green Bay, he has not shown enough game-changing ability in Jones’ absences to consider him an every-week, starting-caliber back. Like Jones, Williams’ future as a Packer is uncertain in its own right for those reasons.
The Packers may have semi-planned for this situation when they selected Dexter Williams in last year’s draft. The Notre Dame one-year wonder slipped far past his projected round and seemed to be the best player available when Green Bay pounced on him in the sixth round. But the Packers never seemed to trust Williams during his rookie season, as he lost playing time and carries to Tra Carson and mid-season pick-up Tyler Ervin. Williams seemed to have enough short-field acceleration and vision to have a professional future during the pre-draft process, but his ability to adapt quickly to the Packers’ offense appeared to hold him back as a rookie. Williams could still have a future in Green Bay, but it is nothing to bank on at this point in time.
Looking at the Packers’ options, there could be a few scenarios in which the Packers look one year ahead at the running back position. Green Bay certainly could wait and do a final evaluation on all three backs during the course of the 2020 season. However, the Packers could also try to extend Jones a year early and avoid unrestricted free agency and another potential breakout season. That would assure the team of one of its best offensive weapons for the short-term, perhaps to the tune of a three- or four-year deal.
If the team chooses to wait on Jones, it could also sign Jamaal Williams to a team-friendly extension after next season as a guaranteed second back and emergency starter. In that case, the Packers may investigate draft-and-develop talent this season in the later rounds similar to what they did in 2017 on the third day. There is little doubt that extra competition and depth would push Dexter Williams, while giving Green Bay another low-cost candidate to consider in a post-Jones backfield.
While running back is not nearly the most pressing need this spring on offense, it is a position that could be a glaring one after next season. It took Green Bay awhile to find Aaron Rodgers a promising complementary piece on the ground and watching the team start over after grooming Jones for several seasons would be a difficult pill to swallow. But no matter which route Green Bay chooses, the organization will have to address its other holes on offense while keeping one eye on the future at running back already this offseason.