Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. Today, we examine the running backs.
When Matt LaFleur was hired as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2019, he made it abundantly clear that there would be a newfound commitment to the running game.
What resulted was a breakout season for Aaron Jones. He earned his first 1,000-yard season and broke a franchise record for touchdowns in a season with 23 combined rushing and receiving. With the passing game taking time to adapt to LaFleur’s offense, Jones powered the offense for a big chunk of 2019.
Backup Jamaal Williams played a more complementary role and contributed nearly 500 yards, giving Green Bay a one-two punch at running back for the first time in what felt like forever.
Going into this season, the expectation on the running back room was to build on their stellar 2019 and, alongside a rejuvenated passing attack, lift the offense to new heights.
The team also added rookie AJ Dillon in the second round of the draft, raising some eyebrows about the future of both Jones and Williams with free agency approaching. Dillon missed a good chunk of the season on the COVID-19 list but once he returned late in the regular season, he showed just how powerful a weapon he can be as well.
Here’s a bigger breakdown on the running backs’ performance in 2020.
Starter: Aaron Jones
14 games started, 14 games played
Rushing: 201 carries, 1,104 yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 5.5 YPA
Receiving: 47 receptions, 355 yards, two touchdowns
After begging former coach Mike McCarthy to feed Jones for two years, fans have been over the moon with how LaFleur has handled the star from UTEP.
Following his record breaking 2019 season, Jones continued to be a vital piece of the 2020 offense. He produced more yards on fewer attempts but had also saw a significant drop in touchdowns. That’s not necessarily unexpected, given how Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams set the record books on fire this year.
Jones’ best games this year came against the Detroit Lions in Week 2 (168 yards), the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13 (130 yards), and the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 (145 yards). Four of his nine rushing touchdowns came in these three games as well. As has become a staple in LaFleur’s offense, Jones contributed in the passing game as well. He had two receiving touchdowns, down from three in 2019, and saw his yards per target drop from 7.0 to 5.6.
Jones had to do well in 2020 to firm up a big contract offer with him entering free agency and he definitely did that. While slightly up in the yardage category, other numbers were down (thanks to missing two games with injury mainly) but he’s been remarkably consistent over the past two seasons
The Packers apparently want Jones back and the feeling may be mutual, but thanks to a reduced salary cap we very well may have seen Jones’ last snap as a Packer.
Primary Backup: Jamaal Williams
3 games started, 14 games available
Rushing: 119 carries, 505 yards, two touchdowns, 4.2 YPA
Receiving: 31 receptions, 236 yards, one touchdown, 6.7 yards per target
Williams as RB2 held his own when in the game, providing a change of pace to what Jones offered.
Continuing his role as the punishing third-down back as well as an excellent pass blocker, Williams too had to make a name for himself as he approaches his own free agency for the first time in his career. While he didn’t break the 100-yard rushing plateau in any game, his best performance came against the Houston Texans, a game Jones missed with injury, where he amassed 77 yards on 19 carries and scored a touchdown.
When Dillon was drafted, it appeared Williams stood to lose the most with the bruising rookie in the room. However, with Jones likely to command a much larger deal than Williams in free agency, a Williams/Dillon combination for the Packers in 2021 cannot be ruled out.
Other backups: AJ Dillon, Tyler Ervin, Dexter Williams
Dillon is clearly the cream of the crop among this group and represents the future at running back for the Packers. You don’t draft a running back in the second round without making that your intention.
The rookie became a fan favorite early in camp as photos of his massive quadriceps went viral on social media. Sadly those legs were on ice for much of the season as Dillon contributed minimally early on before he battled COVID-19. When he did return, however, he made a big splash.
Against the Tennessee Titans on national television, Dillon broke out in a snowy game for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Packers fans thought the team suddenly had a new weapon for the postseason, but for whatever reason Dillon never touched the ball more than six times after that.
Ervin meanwhile was the motion guy, the “gimmick” player if you will. Lining up at both running back and wide receiver, Ervin was the guy you had to account for as he could move anywhere at any time. He also was the team’s primary returner and his contributions on special teams were where he was missed most.
Dexter Williams was on the practice squad for most of the season and contributed only two carries.
Overall Grade: B+
The running backs were very good in 2020. That might seem like an overly simplified statement, but they played a perfect complementary role for league MVP Rodgers and the lethal passing attack. Jones was actually even more effective than last year despite the drop in touchdowns, which bodes well for his wallet.
What kept the group from an A grade overall was more about the lack of production behind Jones. Williams won’t command big dollars in free agency after his 2020 season and while he played well, he’s not Jones and that is by no means an insult.
If LaFleur really wanted to duplicate Kyle Shanahan’s 2019 offense in San Francisco, he really needs a third reliable back. That’s probably why they drafted Dillon but like everything else in life, COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans.
Overall it was a great year for the running game. The big question now is who will be back in 2021? Stay tuned later today for a look at the free agents-to-be.