As the Green Bay Packers head into the 2020 season, they do so with plenty of roster uncertainty hovering over their heads at the end of the year. The team faces a decision on a significant number of internal unrestricted free agents next offseason, including several in the starting lineup. The hardest decision in the bunch might just be the Packers’ leading rusher the past two seasons, Aaron Jones.
Green Bay’s former fifth-round pick has exceeded his draft slot with his production and was reported to have had negotiations on an extension in early June, where Jones mentioned his desire to be a “lifelong Packer.” The decision, unfortunately, will be complicated in terms of finances and long-term forecasting.
Here is an outlook on the pros and cons of signing Jones, who was recently named number 33 on the NFL’s top player countdown, to a long-term deal.
On an offense that has been criticized for its lack of stars, Jones has been one of the bright spots. He’s averaged at least 4.6 yards per carry in each of the past three seasons, including 5.5 yards per carry in 2017 and 2018. While touchdown stats can be misconstrued, Jones’ 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons has been noticeable and he has enough speed to go the distance at any time. The dynamic he brings to the offense on the ground is one that the Packers have rarely had with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. He’s a proven talent in his prime and coming off the first of what could be several 1,000 yard seasons.
Different element than the other backs on the roster
In terms of the dynamic mentioned above, Jones’ speed makes him a more elusive home run threat than other backs on the roster. Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon bring power to the table and even when Williams’ contract is up after the season, Dillon figures to be the team’s short-yardage back. While the impact of Dillon will be a wait-and-see as the 2020 season begins, the lightning of Jones to Dillon’s thunder in what figures to be a more run-oriented offense is an intriguing tandem for the future under Matt LaFleur.
Pass catching improvement
Jones’ increased production in the passing game has, in turn, increased his value to the offense. Since 2017, Jones has seen his reception totals rise from nine to 26 to 49, and his yards per catch have also climbed. The best backs in today’s NFL also help the offense as receivers and, though he has a drop here and there, this aspect of Jones’ game has been consistently improving.
Another factor in signing Jones may be the running back free agent market in 2021, as well as the current COVID-19 financial landscape. While Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey recently signed extensions that will remove them from reaching free agency, names like Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Phillip Lindsay, Joe Mixon, Leonard Fournette, Kenyan Drake, Todd Gurley, and Kareem Hunt are still in the mix. Between a dropping market overall for running backs and perhaps cheaper alternatives than Jones, there may be fewer suitors for Jones’ services in 2021 than in other years. Factor in also the promising 2021 running back draft class; while Jones still will not be a cheap re-sign, he might be hitting the market at the right time for Green Bay.
Recent RB contracts
If the value of running backs is depreciated, one would not be able to tell from recent extensions. McCaffrey locked up a four-year, $64 million contract with Carolina that guarantees him more than $38 million. Likewise, Henry signed on for another four years with Tennessee this offseason for $50 million total with $25.5 million guaranteed. Those contracts are fairly on par with the extensions recently given to other backs like Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Le’Veon Bell. While it is debatable if Jones is in the same category as those elite backs were when they signed, Spotrac suggests Jones’ market value to be in the four-year, $52 million range. Are the Packers willing to pay that kind of money to a running back?
And are they willing to give that money to a back with an injured past? With Jones fully healthy and assuming a larger role than in his first two seasons, the Packers’ running game was a strength in many games. But wear and tear limited Jones to 12 games each of the first two years and Green Bay was conscious of his workload in those games, particularly early in the season. While Jones did increase his carries last season, Packers brass could be worried about his durability long-term.
Other internal free agents and ability to replace
The above factors could play a role in Jones’ value to the Packers in comparison to the team’s other free-agents-to-be. David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, Kevin King, and Kenny Clark make up a group of higher-profile players Green Bay will need to consider after the 2020 season. Some, if not all, could be considered difficult to replace. But the Packers may already have a potential replacement for Jones in Dillon after selecting the latter in the second round of this past draft. Even if Dillon does not produce as planned, running back talent can be historically found in all rounds of the draft. It is difficult to say the same about left tackles and interior defensive players - that will almost surely make Bakhtiari and Clark the largest priorities.