Green Bay Packers

The Lingering Aaron Jones Questions

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA TODAY Sports)

I’ll admit it: Life has been pretty great as a supporter of the Green Bay Packers. I get to enjoy success more often than not, and that stability is sorely needed in a time that is otherwise full of uncertainty.

Speaking of surprise, the re-signing of Aaron Jones came as a bit of a shock. Some had described him as good as gone a couple of days before he signed his extension. Players of his caliber do not often hit the open market, and it was assumed that Green Bay would look to allocate its already limited funding towards other positions.

In the modern era of the NFL, fan discourse would suggest an increasingly avant-garde modicum of thinking regarding paying star running backs big money: don’t. The NFL, much like the NBA, is a copycat league. In the last decade or so, we have seen many teams dominate offensively with quality running-back-by-committee (RBBC) configurations. This approach has certainly been effective for the right teams. Much of Tom Brady’s dynastic run with the New England Patriots was accentuated by quality running back play from a gaggle of players who many outside of fantasy football circles do not remember.

While RBBC frustrates fantasy owners, its benefits to, ya know, real football, manifest both statistically and financially. If a team can cycle two or three quality players in to get touches, each player can perform at their best in an optimized (albeit reduced) role. These players will also command less of a salary on the open market due to limited statistical value. RBBC approaches allow teams to replicate production with volume and population while maintaining financial flexibility.

This is much of the rationale behind the philosophy of not paying your big-name running backs: fill the position with cheap and young players who each play a distinct offensive role, and use that financial flexibility to address other positions of need on the team. The Packers have been utilizing RBBC rotations with varying percentages during Jones’ first four years in the league, though Jones’ usage has seen an uptick since Matt LaFleur took over.

Take a look at how Green Bay’s carries have been distributed amongst their top rushers since 2017, Jones’ rookie year:

If our benchmark of carries for a true feature back hovers around the conventional 300 (admittedly rare these days), Jones still has not come close to meeting that criteria. Even his snap counts during the 2020 season (51.8% to Williams’ 40.2%) would suggest that he’s not featured as much as someone like Derrick Henry (378 carries, 65.6% snaps) or Dalvin Cook (312 carries, 61.7% snaps). Even Melvin Gordon (who is Melvin Gordon, after all?) saw more carries and a higher snap percentage while active than Aaron Jones this year (215 carries, 58.2% snaps).

Knowing this, we are left with some questions:

  1. Is Jones worth the money?
  2. Will the money spent on him leave GB thin at other positions?
  3. Will Jones be utilized like other star RBs with comparable contracts?

Getting to the bottom of these questions will tell us a great deal about how Green Bay will fare in the 2021 season and beyond. The commitment to Jones is major, and it is a situation that is worthy of being examined closely.

Is Jones Worth the Money?

Yes — 100% yes.

Of all running backs with over 200 carries last year, Jones was No. 1 in yards per carry (YPC) at 5.5. This efficiency helped Jones achieve his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season — even while seeing just over 50% of his team’s offensive snaps. He’s averaging a cool 5.2 YPC for his career, and he has scored a combined 30 touchdowns in the last two seasons under LaFleur. I’d say that’s pretty valuable.

Retaining Jones is also a significant upgrade over the alternative, which would have seen both Williams and Dillon leading the rushing attack. While it is inevitable that Dillon will get worked into the offense after a strong late-season showing last year, Jones is just a flat-out better player than Williams.

I’ve got a lot of love for Jamaal and the good vibes he brought to the Packers, but the truth is that Jones is a better player in nearly every statistical category. While Williams showed dramatic improvements last year filling in for Jones, having a bonafide blue-chip player locked into the offense will pay dividends — especially if Dillon makes his expected leap this year alongside Jones.

Taking a glance at the history of the Packers rushers reveals that Jones actually has the highest career YPC of any Green Bay running back with over 500 career attempts. There is a steep hill for him to climb to reach the heights of someone like Ahman Green or Ryan Grant in franchise lore, though Jones has showcased an intense upside that suggests that he could one day finish his career as a top-five Packers running back. Keeping a generational and franchise-defining player like Jones around isn’t only good for trying to win games — it’s also good for fan morale.

Will the Money Spent on Jones Leave Green Bay Thin at other positions?

Not necessarily.

I mean, yes, in the literal sense that the Jones contract is all money that could be going towards something like the offensive line, a Kevin King replacement or a WR2. Those are all positions of need. However, it is important to keep in mind that Green Bay still does not typically shell out big money in free agency. That approach has never been the front office’s method of operation.

A sign of a healthy team is one that frequently drafts and develops its players well, and does not need to make frequent splashes in free agency. This certainly sums up the Packers’ approach to the league since I have started watching football. What this tells me is that Green Bay’s brass is placing their trust in the current players on the roster to step up and fill some of these perceived voids. Much like the decision to skip over the wide receiver position in last year’s draft, Brian Gutekunst and Co. appear to stand by the ol’ “draft and develop” philosophy.

The jury is still out on this one, though if we see the expected improvements in some of the younger players on the roster and have a strong draft next year, I am sure concerns about closing the other positional gaps will wash away.

We have to wait and see.

Will Jones be utilized like other star RBs with comparable contracts?

The below financial numbers are taken from Over the Cap. The columns are (L to R):
Age, Total Value, Avg/Year, Total Guaranteed, Fully Guaranteed, FA Status

Jones’ new contract places him smack dab in the middle of these five RBs, with only three (McCaffrey, Kamara, Elliott) that have more valuable contracts than the running backs listed above.

Of these five players during the 2020 season, Jones ranked fourth in total touches per game (17.7) and last in snaps per game (38). This lack of usage has been an ongoing issue and a source of great frustration for Packers fans. If this usage rate continues, it would be even more evidential to say that Green Bay is misusing one of its most talented players.

The onus to use Jones like a featured running back falls entirely on LaFleur and Nathaniel Hackett. LaFleur, in particular, played a large role in the drafting of Dillon, who many have likened to be a sort of “Henry Lite” that LaFleur can utilize like he did Henry during his tenure in Tennessee. In light of this, it would seem to stand to reason that Dillon will see an expanded offensive role in 2021 — ideally one that would not reduce Jones’ workload any further.

Again, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the dispersal of workload. However, a Green Bay hopeful could dream about a season where Jones gets at least 250-plus carries and sees at least 60% of the offensive snaps. Jones is now getting paid like a back who can regularly make those numbers happen, and he has certainly showcased that he has the potential to capitalize on that opportunity. If LaFleur knows what’s up, he will maximize Jones’s opportunity in the upcoming season.

Of the teams listed above that have comparable RB contracts to the new Jones deal, most of them did not fare well in the win-loss column last season (with Henry being the exception). It is unfair to draw any specific conclusions about a potential negative correlation between running back value and odds of victory. Still, the recency bias is surely adding fuel to that fiery discussion.

2020 Records:

MIN: 7-9
TEN: 11-5
CIN: 4-11-1
DEN: 5-11

The New York Jets gave a bunch of money to Le’Veon Bell, and they were still awful. Ezekiel Elliott got paid after holding out, and the Dallas Cowboys still can’t manage to win the NFC East. Christian McCaffrey is worth every penny of his contract, but that alone still cannot manage to pull the Carolina Panthers out of whatever limbo they have been stuck in.

Regardless, as the resident Packers Optimist, I still think that the retention of Jones is a major boon for the team. Green Bay welcomes back a supremely talented yet severely underutilized player that should have every opportunity to succeed presented to him.

If the narrative is going to change around the value of running backs in relation to team success, it has to start somewhere. Here’s to hoping that Jones can add some positivity to that outlook.

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