Mar 14, 2021
Rob DemovskyESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Packers for Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1997-2013
- Two-time Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The examples of Aaron Jones‘ game-breaking ability over the past two years for the Green Bay Packers are just as numerous as there are running backs who turned out to be bad signings.
The Packers banked on Jones over recent league-wide trends.
All they can do now is sit back and watch how it unfolds.
Will the 26-year-old Jones, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract to return to the team that drafted him in 2017, become just another in a long line of running backs who regressed after their big deals (see Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell) or will he continue to provide the Packers with years like his 19-touchdown season of 2019 or games like his 236-yard day against the Lions last season?
As important as a dynamic running back is to coach Matt LaFleur’s play-action-based offense, it’s easy to see why Packers GM Brian Gutekunst rolled the dice on Jones. When LaFleur was hired in 2019, the first reaction among many who knew his system was that Jones was the perfect back for his offense.
And Jones proved it.
Under LaFleur, Jones posted two straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He rushed for 1,084 yards and led the NFL with 19 touchdowns in 2019. Including the playoffs that season, he scored 23 times, the most for a season in team history. He backed that up with 1,104 rushing yards despite missing two games with a calf injury this past season and made his first Pro Bowl.
The injury issue is perhaps the biggest risk with any running back, and it was a factor for Jones in his first two seasons when he suffered three different knee injuries that cost him eight games. But he has been more than reliable since. It helped that Jones had Jamaal Williams to ease his burden. He’s had only four career games with 20-plus carries, and there’s little reason to think LaFleur would all of a sudden increase his workload.
If anything, perhaps he’ll be more cautious with him. Williams, like Jones, was in the final year of his contract and now seems like a good bet to hit the market on Monday. But AJ Dillon, who rushed for 124 yards in a late-season game against the Titans, should be a natural to slide into the complementary role this season.
The structure of the deal, which wasn’t available on Sunday, ultimately will show just how much the Packers risked by re-signing Jones. The $13 million signing bonus was market price, but the average per year — reported at $12 million — was on the high side. One trusted agent who has correctly predicted APYs of free agents for years tabbed Jones for $9 million. If the deal is back-loaded with easy ways to get out after, say two years, then the risk is reasonable.
The Packers spent the past week restructuring the contracts of safety Adrian Amos, linebacker Preston Smith and offensive lineman Billy Turner to put them in position to at least ensure the back-to-back NFC title game appearances weren’t the end of this window.
Jones helps that.
The only question now is for how long.