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Packers 2021 Free Agents: Big decisions await Brian Gutekunst on the running backs

Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have become fan favorites under Matt LaFleur. Will either be in a Packers uniform for the 2021 season?

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

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. We also will examine the players on each unit who will be free agents in 2021. Today, we examine the running backs.

We hope everyone enjoyed the running back room the Green Bay Packers had in 2020, because it probably will not be close to the same in 2021.

Big decisions loom for Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst at the position, with both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams set to hit the free agent market in March. With a shrinking salary cap likely to be somewhere near the $180 million mark, Green Bay is going to have to make some difficult calls at the position.

This isn’t to say Gutekunst and Packers cap guru Russ Ball can’t perform some amazing financial gymnastics and somehow find a way to keep both running backs in Green Bay. It’s just that it will almost certainly mean one player at least signing a deal that is below and maybe even well below market value.

Let’s take a look at each pending free agent running back and see what the future holds for them.

Aaron Jones

NFL Experience: Four years
FA Status: Unrestricted free agent
Expiring contract: 4-year rookie contract; $2.601 million total
2020 stats: 201 rushes, 1,104 rushing yards, nine touchdowns. 47 receptions, 355 receiving yards, two touchdown receptions

Jones is the premier Packers player to hit free agency this year. He’s been a critical part of the offense since head coach Matt LaFleur’s arrival in 2019 and has become one of the NFL’s elite running backs, rushing for over 1,000 yards the last two seasons.

For his part, Jones has spoken in the past about wanting to stay in Green Bay and Gutekunst has expressed that the feeling is mutual. Once you dispense with the pleasantries and see that Jones already rejected an offer from the Packers after changing agents, the reality of the situation becomes more murky, especially with AJ Dillon waiting in the wings.

When Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension last spring, that set the market for Jones. Given the average shelf life of running backs and the danger of signing them to large second contract, it’s difficult to see Jones commanding a deal similar to what McCaffrey signed, especially with a shrinking salary cap.

As much as fans want Jones back and as great as it would be, it’s difficult to see him back in Green Bay barring him taking a rather sizeable hometown discount. With extensions looming for Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander among others, it just doesn’t make much sense to tie up a lot of money on a running back given their shelf lives.

Jamaal Williams

NFL Experience: Four years
FA status: Unrestricted free agent
Expiring contract: 4 years, $2.966 million total
2020 stats: 119 rushed, 505 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns. 31 receptions, 236 yards, one touchdown reception

When the Packers drafted Dillon, many took that as a sign that Jones was all but a goner when free agency rolled around. While that very much seems like a possibility, the selection of Dillon wasn’t to potentially replace Jones.

It was to replace Williams, at least it seemed so at the time.

Following a decent if not slightly underwhelming season from Williams, it’s a little more difficult to see a team offering the backup running back a massive contract when you consider the shrinking salary cap. Teams are not going to be able to overreach financially this spring, which gives Williams a much better shot at returning to Green Bay than Jones.

It would not be surprising to see Williams and Dillon (maybe reverse the names) as the primary running backs next season. Dillon showed enough when he finally came off the COVID-19 list that he belongs in the Packers’ plan and bringing Williams back would give Green Bay a lot of power in the backfield.

Tyler Ervin

NFL Experience: Five years
FA Status: Unrestricted free agent
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $1.048 million
2020 stats: 13 carries, 67 rushing yards. 11 receptions 84 receiving yards. 196 kickoff return yards (10 kickoffs), 20 punt return yards (four punts)

Ervin rescued the Packers’ return game in 2019 and showed enough to become an interesting gadget player on offense.

As the primary motion man in 2020, he gave LaFleur a lot of options in showing defense different pre-snap looks. Beyond that, he really was more of a special teams contributor and his return could give new coordinator Maurice Drayton some continuity at the position despite Ervin missing the final month of the season on injured reserve.

If he is indeed brought back, look for Ervin to receive not much more than a minimal deal and for him to likely not sign until after the draft as Gutekunst could very well find a replacement in the middle-to-late rounds.