Each winter, Acme Packing Company breaks down the Green Bay Packers’ roster from the previous year by position to examine the team’s performance and needs in the offseason. Today we continue this series by looking at the running back position.
Under new head coach Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay Packers promised to return to the run game somewhat in 2019 after years of being a pass-first team under Mike McCarthy. The final numbers bore that out, as the team’s 411 rushing attempts was their most since the 2015 season.
And while the Packers were still fairly pass-heavy, with a run/pass ratio of 41.8% to 58.2%, they were closer to the middle of the pack than they had been in recent years. That ranking put them 18th in highest percentage of running plays, after coming in 31st, 24th and 29th, in the three years previous.
Not only did the Packers run the ball closer to a league-average clip, but they also had great success doing so, thanks in large part to the team’s one-two punch at running back. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams will be forever connected by their linked draft status, both coming out in the 2017 draft as third-day picks. While Jones finally took firm grasp of the starter’s role this year, Williams continues to be a critical player for this team, and the two had one of the best seasons for a Packers running back duo in the past 15 years.
Starter: Aaron Jones
16 games played, 16 starts
Rushing: 236 carries, 1,084 yards (4.6 YPC), 16 TDs
Receiving: 68 targets, 49 receptions, 474 yards (9.7 YPR), 3 TDs
After two years of fans gnashing their teeth over Mike McCarthy’s hesitance to give Jones the featured back role, Matt LaFleur gave in, giving Jones the lion’s share of the workload for the Packers. Even though Jones only exceeded 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in three games (including one in the postseason), he was a consistent presence in the backfield and routinely found himself in the teens in carries. He also emerged as a receiving threat in the early-middle part of the season, particularly when Davante Adams was out for four games with turf toe.
The seventh-ranked runner by DVOA (rushing efficiency), Jones finished fifth in success rate and fourth in DYAR (a measure of total production). Jones posted five separate games with at least 100 rushing yards, earned a pair of NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards, and tied Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers for the league lead in total touchdowns with 19. Jones was particularly adept at finding the end zone when in close, scoring ten of his 16 rushing touchdowns from within five yards of the goal line; he still showed a knack for the big play, however, with two scores of 50-plus.
Now entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, Jones looks on track to get paid handsomely in the 2021 offseason.
Primary Backup: Jamaal Williams
14 games played, 2 starts
Rushing: 107 carries, 460 yards (4.3 YPC), 1 TD
Receiving: 45 targets, 39 receptions, 253 yards (6.5 YPR), 5 TDs
The bruising complement to Jones’ quicker slashing style, Williams continued to be an excellent pass-blocker and third-down back, with a particularly productive season as a receiver. Even though Jones averaged more yards per catch, Williams was significantly better by DVOA (8th vs. 32nd), in large part due to his five touchdown receptions. On the ground, Williams had his most efficient season, hitting 450 yards for the third straight season but averaging over four yards per carry for the first time in his career.
Williams will not be an athletic marvel, but he runs hard and playes with good fundamentals. He took well to LaFleur’s new scheme and will be a key piece in the backfield once again in 2020.
Other contributors: Danny Vitale, Tyler Ervin, Dexter Williams
Vitale: 15 games; 1 carry for 3 yards; 7 receptions for 97 yards
Ervin: 4 games; 1 carry for 10 yards; 2 receptions for 11 yards; 11 punt returns for 106 yards, 6 kickoff returns for 160 yards
Williams: 4 games; 5 carries for 11 yards
The Packers got a handful of snaps per game from Vitale, but often used tight ends as lead blockers in the backfield. An injury kept him out of the Packers’ week 17 game as well as both playoff contests, but it seemed that he wasn’t particularly missed. LaFleur dialed up a few shot plays for him on wheel routes and he had a couple of big plays, but couldn’t quite find his way into the end zone.
Ervin was a revelation as a late-season waiver claim, improving the Packers’ return game so much that teams were kicking away from him in the postseason. That came after the team had minus-8 net punt return yards prior to his arrival after Thanksgiving. LaFleur also dialed up some creative plays for him late in the year, putting his exceptional speed and agility to use on offense.
The younger Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, was only active for a few games and played just ten snaps on offense all year. Though he possesses a similar slashing style to Jones, he seemed to struggle to click in LaFleur’s offense and will need to improve this offseason to earn some more playing time.
Overall Grade: A
The Packers’ running game was one of the most efficient in the NFL in 2019, finishing 4th in DVOA. Much of that was due to Jones’ breakout, as he finally achieved star status and consistently finished off drives in the end zone. With another year of development this offseason for the backs and the head coach, look for this unit to be even better in 2020 if the key players can stay healthy.