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Is Aaron Jones past his prime already heading into a contract year?

Is Jones hitting free agency while already on the decline?

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to bury the lede here: The answer is we don’t know whether Aaron Jones is washed up. The purpose of this article is to pose the question and dig into some data to see if anything can be sussed out. After his hyper-efficient 2018 and barnstorming of 2019, Aaron Jones’ 2020 feels kind of disappointing, especially for someone who is just about to hit free agency. Never the poster child of durability, Jones has missed two games this season. In the games he has played, Jones has not seen a substantially reduced workload, going from 15 carries per game in 2019 to 14 per game in 2020. His use in the passing game has actually increased in 2020 with 5.4 targets per game versus 4 per game last season.

The Packers are still using Aaron Jones plenty, and his baseline averages are not very different. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry in 2020 compared to 4.6 last year. His yards per reception have dropped from 9.7 to 8.2, though. The hypothesized reason for this is that teams are much more reluctant to match Jones on a linebacker after Matt LaFleur exploited that mismatch in mid-2019. In fact, if you eliminate his unbelievable game against Kansas City last year, his yards per reception would drop all the way to 7.5.

So perhaps our expectations for Aaron Jones were unrealistically high from a handful of games where he was used to thoroughly exploit mismatches that are far rarer now. He had four games with at least seven targets in 2019 and has just one in 2020. He’s also seen a slight reduction in the depth of target, from an average of 2.8 to 2.2. That’s not a huge change, but it’s not nothing. If Jones can’t get matched up on linebackers in coverage, particularly out wide, there are fewer opportunities for those shot plays to him. That’s not Jones getting worse, that’s just teams adjusting to what Green Bay was doing. Sometimes defensive coordinators make adjustments to stop you from doing what you want. I wish I knew what that was like.

While the superficial numbers don’t show a significant differences (outside of touchdowns, which are more opportunity-related than anything), there are some trends worth pointing out:

Aaron Jones Stats By Season

Season RYOE/Carry Run DVOA Receiving DVOA 8+D% ROE% YPC
Season RYOE/Carry Run DVOA Receiving DVOA 8+D% ROE% YPC
2018 1.05 17.10% 2.20% 13.53% 43.10% 5.5
2019 0.3 12% -5.10% 20.76% 39.50% 4.6
2020 0.17 11.20% 1.60% 21.24% 36.30% 4.7

The most concerning part here is the RYOE/Carry. For those of you unfamiliar with RYOE, it stands for rushing yards over expected. Utilizing NextGenStats, a player is assigned an expected yards per carry on each handoff. Let’s say a player gets an expected-yards of 4 and then run for 5, then get 1 RYOE. Positive RYOE means you’re exceeding expectation, negative means you’re underachieving. While Jones has a positive RYOE/carry still, the number has dropped pretty substantially over his career.

Jones was unbelievable as a more lightly used player in 2018. With a higher workload (and larger sample size) in 2019, his efficiency dropped. It has dropped again in 2020. He has seen a 43% drop in his RYOE/carry in 2020 from 2019, and since 2018, an 84% decline. Jones has gone from a top 5 RB in the metric in 2018 to a more middling back the past two years. In fact, we see a pretty big drop in all of his numbers from 2018 to 2019 with another decline in 2020.

Now Jones has seen a higher percentage of heavy boxes in the past two years than he did in 2018, but that is accounted for in the RYOE calculation. Offensive line plays the biggest part in the running game, and they’ve been stellar. Run-block win-rate is a newly public stat for 2020, so there are not historical comparisons, but the Packers currently rank #1 in the NFL at 74%. Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards does have a historical comparison which shows a bit of a decline from 2018 to 2019 (4.7 to 4.47 yards) but essentially the same number in 2020 as 2019 (4.49 to 4.47). Despite all the shuffling that has occurred on the offensive line, it hasn’t seem to hurt them.

I don’t know if Aaron Jones is really declining or if circumstances are creating an efficiency decline for him, but that’s part of the problem. Running backs don’t drive most of their own production. With the numbers we do have that try to separate the running back from their situation, Jones does appear to getting a little worse. It’s not uncommon for running backs to peak as rookies or second year players, and there are indications that Aaron Jones is going to follow that path.