The Green Bay Packers are working on an extension for running back Aaron Jones and here, we take a look at the reasons why the Packers should. . .and shouldn’t re-sign Jones.
The modern school of thought when it comes to NFL running backs is simple: don’t give them a second contract. A variation of that concept is to not overpay a running back, which is based on the notion (proven largely by statistics) that running backs are the most replaceable offensive position for any given team. By spending more to fortify that spot, you’re limiting your spending power for other, more statistically valuable spots.
But, like most things in life, you can’t let one factor guide your decision making entirely. The anti-running back argument, for lack of a better phrase, makes logical sense. However, it also excludes nuance like scheme and other important, sometimes intangible factors.
That’s where Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones comes in. Jones made an appearance on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football program this week, telling the show’s hosts that he (via his agent) and the Packers are working on a new contract.
— Will Selva (@WillSelvaTV) September 8, 2020
You can’t argue Aaron Jones’s production since arriving in Green Bay and how valuable it’s been to the offense. In 40 career games he’s racked up just under 3,000 total yards from scrimmage, establishing himself as a weapon as a runner and receiver. Not only that, but he led the NFL in total touchdowns last season with 19 (including a league-high 16 rushing scores).
He’s dynamic, versatile and a seemingly perfect fit for coach Matt LaFleur’s offense. In a vacuum, as well as using the common NFL mindset of the recent past, it’s obvious that Aaron Jones would get an extension once his rookie deal ran out (a rookie deal that is an insane bargain, since he was a sixth-round pick in 2017).
But this isn’t a running back-centric league anymore. Even some of the best tailbacks in the NFL can often be replaced by younger, cheaper players for a similar level of production. Take the Dallas Cowboys as an example. Ezekiel Elliott is widely considered to be a top-five running back in the NFL, and he’s paid like it with a contract value of $90 million total. In 2017 he averaged fewer yards per attempt than his backup and spot starter Alfred Morris (4.1 yards per carry compared to 4.8).
That raises a few questions. Is the running game completely reliant on heavy boxes, which would subsequently mean that the passing game is actually a bigger influence on running than the ball carrier himself? Was Dallas’s success based on an elite offensive line rather than an elite rusher? Is Elliott actually as good as he’s made out to be?
Some of those questions have more merit than others, but they’re all factors in the new school of thought when it comes to paying running backs. Do you need to break the bank for a star when a replacement can give you adequate production?
Bring that back to Jones and the Packers. Green Bay selected A.J. Dillon in the second round of this year’s draft, and you don’t take a player with such a high pick without expecting them to be a contributor. If the Packers decided to move on from Aaron Jones instead of re-signing him, Dillon would be a cheap replacement who obviously has high expectations. If Green Bay decided to let both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams walk away, could it find a replacement for both players on the cheap and replicate what they bring to the table?
All of these questions provide a different perspective if nothing else, and may be a determining factor in whether or not a team wants to bring back a running back who’s looking for a big payday.
If you weigh all of those based solely on financial value and compare production to analytical models, the case against paying a running back is compelling. But again, you have to consider other elements in the debate.
This time, examine the Carolina Panthers. They employ Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best running back in the game today. He’s a running back who is also almost any team’s starting slot receiver, or he’s an excellent possession receiver who doubles as a superstar out of the backfield. He is the Panthers’ offense right now. Without No. 22 in the backfield, there is almost nothing that worries you or grabs your attention on that side of the ball in Carolina. When you have a guy who is that important, you obviously need to maintain him to save that production.
Green Bay isn’t quite as bereft of talent as Carolina, considering Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams are still on the field, at least. But Aaron Jones’s role can’t be understated. In three regular-season losses last season, Jones averaged 13.7 touches and 41.7 total yards per game. In 13 wins, Jones averaged 15 touches and 110.2 total yards per game. When he is a featured part of the offense there’s a different level of explosion, success and confidence that is otherwise missing. It’s hard to walk away from such a key element of any team.
Maybe the biggest thing that the hardline “don’t pay running backs” stance excludes is the concept of greatness. It’s generally smart business to let good players walk and to re-sign the great ones. For the Packers, Jones is a great one. Not historically speaking, but in regard to importance for their current offense.
What all of these questions, points and counterpoints should show is that this is a difficult situation. We haven’t even explored things like injuries, which are in the process of derailing Todd Gurley’s career, among others. Health is fleeting for most running backs and certainly plays a role here, especially given the fact that Aaron Jones has often had his carries limited in order to preserve his body. There’s no clear and obvious answer for what the Packers should do with the Jones situation. Your argument likely comes down to what you value as a fan and what you value when you pretend you’re a general manager. Is it the immediate impact a player makes on the field, or is it the value versus production dilemma?
Wherever you stand, you can’t deny how much better the Packers have been when Aaron Jones is a focal point of the offense. For a franchise that’s trying to win another title while it still has a future hall of famer under center, it’s hard to argue that dumping a player as vital as Aaron Jones is worth it.