It’s an indictment of every NFL team’s general manager that running back Aaron Jones wasn’t drafted until late in the fifth round in 2017, the 182nd player chosen that year. It’s even more of a scandal that the Packers didn’t properly appreciate his value prior to this year.
Jones has been ready for the pros from the day he joined the Packers. As a rookie in 2017, Mike McCarthy didn’t give him a carry for the first four games. Then Jones finally got a chance in Week 5, and proceeded to be named rookie of the week. He then repeated that honor in week 7, when he had 17 carries for 131 yards, though in a loss to the Saints.
Jones has been on my radar screen for a long time, including these postings: “Aaron Jones an NFL Feel-Good Story” (10/30/17) (here); “Aaron Jones: Under-used and Misused” (1/15/19) (here); “¡Salud! El Paso for Your Gift to Green Bay” (10/31/1) (here); “Aaron Jones Transcends His Profession” (12/11/19) (here); and, “Packers Roster Features Several Draft and Acquisition Steals” (8/12/21) (here).
Though the Packers only started this treasure in four games as a rookie, and in eight games in his second year, Aaron has always been productive. In three of his four prior years, he’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry. That’s both greatness and consistency, especially for a team that until recently was comprised of just average run blockers.
Starting with coach Mike McCarthy, and continuing on for two years with Matt LaFleur, Packers fans were led to believe that Jones would need plenty of rest if the little guy (5’9”, 208#) were to survive in the NFL. We were also fed the line that teammate Jamaal Williams and Jones were similarly talented, so platooning the two was the smart move. Finally, since Jones had only71 pass receptions at UTEP, we were told that Jones was limited as a receiver.
This was despite the fact that Jones was a prolific player at UTEP from 2013 through 2016. Over his career there, he averaged 6.3 yards per run; in his final year he averaged an absurd 7.7 yards per carry – and this was despite being relentlessly targeted, as he was the only quality player at UTEP in his years there. And yes, the more carries the El Paso native got, the better he played.
It took over four years of inspired and stellar play in Green Bay before the Packers acknowledged his value to the team. The first occasion was on March 26, when the team surprised almost all the pundits by signing him to a four-year deal for $48 million. The second time the team gave proper recognition to his abilities was on Monday night when, at a critical time following an opening-season blowout loss, they largely entrusted the ball and the outcome of the game to him.
Jones wound up with 17 carries for 67 yards and one touchdown on the ground; he also hauled in six catches for 48 yards and three more touchdowns. That’s 115 yards out of the team’s 323 offensive production. Jones was particularly impressive when it came to third down conversions and red-zone production, which are the stats that win games in the NFL. This should come as no surprise, as he’s been a touchdown machine whenever he’s been given the chance in Green Bay.
Equally pleasing, on Monday night, Matt LaFleur at long last expertly varied his play calls, with Jones going up the middle, veering off tackle, being sent wide, and running a bunch of screens and quick-hitting pass routes. Though he broke no big plays, he got every yard possible out of each opportunity. The first Green Bay touchdown was a thing of beauty, with Jones going in motion, taking a touch pass from Rodgers, and sweeping around the left side into the end zone. We’ve been hearing about jet sweeps since LaFleur arrive in town, but have only seen one every five games or so – leave it to Jones to demonstrate how to execute a jet sweep.
Jones has increasingly been given the ball over the years, but he is still nowhere near to the carries of the league-leading running backs. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged 190 rushing carries and 40.7 pass completions. The rushes compare to Derrick Henry’s 298.7 average rushes over the last three years. When last healthy for a season, in Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey had 278 rushes and an astounding 116 pass receptions in 2019. Alvin Kamara is another running back who thrives as a pass receiver, as he’s had over 80 catches in each of his past three seasons.
Henry has received plenty of acclaim for his production, including two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro designations, (one second-team) and being named offensive player of the year last season. McCaffrey has also been a Pro Bowler and twice an All-Pro (one second-team). Kamara is a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time second-team All Pro. The only league-wide recognition Jones has received was being named to the Pro Bowl last season.
In my mind, Jones is a top tier running back, alongside Henry, McCaffrey, Kamara, and the ever-improving Dalvin Cook. It’s just not as apparent because the Packers have so under-utilized him.
At the same time, I’ll grant you that Aaron Jones is not among the ten most talented, or athletic, running backs in the league. He gets the job done through effort, determination and giving his all on every play, including as a blocker. Jones is also a tremendous clutch player. As he showed on Monday night, when the game is on the line, he’s at his best.
As the team was gearing up for a championship run this spring, much emphasis was given to how strong this team’s leadership and veteran presence is. So what does Matt LaFleur do? He gets Jones five carries and two catches, for a total output of 22 yards against the Saints. As smart as he is, the head coach makes his fair share of big blunders – which I guess goes with being an inexperienced NFL head coach. To his credit, however, he admits to his mistakes, and he seldom repeats them.
On Monday night, the Packers committed to letting their offensive playmakers, Rodgers, Jones, and Adams, take command of the game. If the coaching staff continues to follow that course, it bodes well for the rest of the season. Let’s have Aaron Jones earn his $12 million annual paycheck.