Aaron Jones is a fantastic running back and a phenomenal human being. He crossed the 1,000 total yards mark for the third-straight season and is the Green Bay Packers’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. However, Brian Gutekunst’s decision last offseason to award him a 4-year, $48 million contract continues to look like a huge mistake.
Jones has been an instrumental piece of Green Bay’s offense since they drafted him in 2017. However, after the Packers selected Boston College wrecking ball A.J. Dillon in the second round of the 2020 draft, it was widely believed that the team was preparing to move on from him.
In a shocking move, general manager Gutekunst opted to spend a huge chunk of the Packers’ limited budget to keep the former fifth-rounder out of UTEP in green and gold.
Monster extensions for running backs haven’t panned out recently. Todd Gurley’s $57 million arthritis saga, David Johnson’s $39 million dud in Arizona, Devonta Freeman’s $41 million collapse, and Le’Veon Bell’s $52 million trainwreck with the New York Jets come to mind.
More recently, Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey has only played 10 games after signing a 5-year, $64 million deal two years ago. And the Dallas Cowboys’ $90 million man, Ezekiel Elliott, has seen his YPG fall year-over-year, from over 100 in 2017 to 58.9 this season. Elliott was also outshined this season by Tony Pollard, who averaged almost a full yard and a half more per carry.
The evidence overwhelmingly endorses frugality with young backs not named Derrick Henry. The Tennessee Titans’ star back is an outlier. He carries the ball 27-plus times a game, rushed for over 2,000 yards last year, and his offense is dependent on the attention defenses give him. Jones rushes approximately 11 times a game and makes 96% of Henry’s salary.
In addition to their short lifespan, Pro Football Network’s Offensive Value Metric rates running backs as the NFL’s least valuable offensive skill position. Furthermore, recent evidence has reinforced the idea that running back success is highly dependent on the offensive system. Kyle Shanahan’s rushing attack in San Francisco is the perfect example, and it has worked to perfection in soul-crushing ways for Packers fans.
With the league’s highest-paid tackle, tight end, fullback, and a six-time Pro Bowler at center, the 49ers plow holes so big it would be ludicrous to pay someone $12 million a year to run through them. That’s why undrafted back Raheem Mostert came off the street to torch Green Bay for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the 2019 NFC Championship Game on a $1.4 million base salary.
They did it again this year. Sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell out of Louisiana-Lafayette ran for almost 1,000 yards. He cost less than a million bucks. And I’ll bet you can’t tell me much about the undrafted duo who tore it up in relief – Jeff Wilson Jr. and JaMycal Hasty.
Following Green Bay’s divisional-round exit, Aaron Rodgers addressed the uncertainty surrounding his future by emphasizing that he doesn’t “want to be part of a rebuild.” In doing so, he acknowledged that the financial hole the front office has created for themselves might impede the team’s championship aspirations moving forward.
Which brings me to an interesting question – where could that $48 million have gone if not to Jones? First of all, with Over the Cap currently projecting the team to come in more than $40 million above the 2022 salary cap, nobody is undoubtedly a viable answer. The Packers could have positioned themselves to extend Davante Adams, Jaire Alexander, and the handful of key contributors with expiring contracts by rolling that money over.
If they were going to spend that money, well, the Packers let All-Pro center Corey Linsley leave for Los Angeles for just $500,000 more annually than what Jones got. As a result, Gutekunst had to spend last year’s second-rounder on Ohio State center Josh Myers. It doesn’t take an economist to see the problem there.
By pushing their spending to the edge, the Packers not only missed a chance to save up but also sacrificed flexibility when it came to midseason additions. When the Cleveland Browns parted ways with star wideout Odell Beckham, Green Bay was widely perceived as the favorite to land him. They could have polished up their offensive weaponry and gone all-in on a second Super Bowl with Rodgers.
However, the Packers refused to offer Beckham more than the veteran minimum, and he took a $1.25 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams, who have shamelessly pushed all their chips to the center of the table this year. Now, Beckham and the Rams are heading to Super Bowl LVI. After completing one pass to a wideout not named Davante Adams, the Packers will watch from the couch in their playoff defeat.
When it comes to the opportunity cost of that $48 million, you can take your pick between Linsley, Beckham, Jaire’s extension, holding onto it – or some combination of those. But it did not make economic sense for a team with a problematic cap situation to splurge on a low-value position. That’s especially true after they just spent premium draft capital on a young stud who has carried the ball more times and for more yards than Jones this season.
I can already hear the cries of He’s the lightning to Dillon’s thunder and What about his elite receiving ability? There’s no question that the Jones-Dillon combo is an embarrassment of riches at the position. But the salary cap ensures you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Let me tell you how I would’ve handled the backfield last offseason.
You have Dillon on his rookie contract, so you’ve got your hammer for cheap. You re-sign Jamaal Williams for the same two-year, $6 million price that the Detroit Lions paid, and you have a dynamic back with receiving ability for $9 million less per year. Is he as good as Jones? No. Is the difference between them a small price to pay for that extra $9 million annually, especially when Dillon handles half the work? Absolutely.
Williams is part of an elite backfield duo in Detroit alongside D’Andre Swift, one of the few bright spots for an otherwise abysmal franchise. He ran for 601 yards this season, adding another 157 through the air.
I think we can all agree that Aaron Jones’ big-time payday couldn’t be going to a more beloved and admirable human being, and it is money he has earned through repeated on-field success. Nevertheless, $48 million decisions must maximize wins, and Gutekunst seems to have turned a blind eye to the data and the consequences on this one.