Coming off a year where the Green Bay Packers had a legitimate three-headed monster at running back, they enter the off-season not knowing how thin they may be at the position.
AJ Dillon, the rookie second-round pick out of Boston College, flourished when given an opportunity late in the season after an extended stay on the COVID-19 list. He’s guaranteed to return. Aaron Jones backed up what he did in 2019-20 with another campaign that cemented him as one of the best two-way backs in the NFL. And Jamaal Williams continued to be a physical back who welcomed contact and provided relief to Jones. Williams would probably start on a lot of NFL teams. However, with the cap expected to drop the Packers are already scheduled to be over the mark.
As Jones and Williams hit unrestricted free agency, what will the depth chart look like in 2021?
Let’s start with Aaron Jones. He rushed for more yards on fewer carries in 2020 than he did in his majestic 2019 season. While he had fewer touchdowns, he was still as effective in both the running and receiving game, something that was hard to replicate given his success two years ago. He proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
Jones has emerged as one of the most versatile backs in the league, and because of that, he may have become too expensive for Green Bay to retain. Someone will throw him the bag; the odds it’s the Packers would appear slim given their current cap situation.
Jones and the Packers failed to come to an agreement on a couple of different contract options, or even come close, according to multiple reports throughout the year. Jones, in a not-necessarily-related move, switched agents, going with Drew Rosenhaus. That sank the hopes of many Packers fans. Rosenhaus is well regarded as an agent who tends to be stubborn, finagling to get the most for his clients. As much as it would obviously benefit the Packers to re-sign Jones, that might not be feasible for them.
For now, let’s count Jones as likely going elsewhere.
Next is Jamaal Williams. He has been sensational for the Packers and has starred in his role ever since entering the league four years ago. Many wonder if he has the chance to be a bell-cow back, a 20-plus carry guy who sees 85 percent or more of the snaps. He certainly hasn’t shown anything to suggest otherwise, he’s just had limited chances at times because he was drafted the same year as Aaron Jones. They came to Green Bay together and have been a terrific one-two punch during their tenure. Bringing back Williams is far more realistic for the Packers. He won’t be as expensive as Jones and would more than likely welcome the opportunity to stay in Green Bay and take on a bigger role.
If the Packers are able to work something out, is Williams first on the depth chart entering training camp, or is AJ Dillon? You’d think in this scenario Green Bay would have an open competition between the two. Even if Dillon were to win, the role for Williams would definitely be larger if Jones left. The Packers may lean toward Dillon given that they spent a second-round pick on him. It’s absolutely not the end-all, be-all, but if you’re spending a second-round pick on a running back, at some point you’re going to want to see if they can be the featured back. Green Bay would seemingly give Dillon ample opportunity to prove themselves correct.
Consider, hypothetically, that the Packers work out a deal with Jamaal Williams to bring him back along with AJ Dillon. It’s hard to see the Packers adding a running back in free agency, outside of trying to re-sign Jones and Williams. So the last option is the NFL Draft. With needs at cornerback, inside linebacker, offensive line, and wide receiver taking priority, it would be shocking to see the Packers spend any early-round picks on a running back. It was a bit surprising to see them take one in the second round last year, but from that has emerged “Quadzilla” with AJ Dillon, so I’ll hold fire.
The idea of signing someone to a minimum contract to round out the depth chart at running back could very well be an option. But after Travis Etienne and Najee Harris, there’s a lot of fogginess as to where the rest of the chips fall in this running back draft class. Why not see how far someone like Chuba Hubbard, Kylin Hill, or Demetric Felton slip. Those three in particular are on my radar as dudes who flourished in college but also have glaring weaknesses that need to be coached up or worked around. But if they are around in round four orfive, why not take a flyer?
I know the Packers have other needs, but we have seen how critical the running game is to Matt LaFleur’s scheme. Could a duo of Dillon and Williams be enough? Perhaps. But keep in mind, Williams was a fourth round selection in 2017, and Aaron Jones was a fifth round selection in 2017. If the Packers could strike gold again in the later rounds, why not sling that dart at the board?
This to me is the most likely path for the Green Bay Packers and the running back spot for 2021. Accept the fact the Jones is so good you can’t afford him. Resign Jamaal Williams on a fair and reasonable deal and bring him back with AJ Dillon. Then shoot your shot with Hubbard, Hill, or Felton in rounds four or five if any of the three falls that far. While ideally, Jones wears the green and gold again, the Packers may be forced to face a different reality. The above option would be a solid blueprint for continued success.