Aaron Jones Free Agent Spotlight: Will Packers keep star running back?

Running backs don’t matter! That’s what the nerd-bullies of the internet say, anyway. In fairness, it’s *somewhat* true. Splurging on a free agent running back in the NFL is a great way to bloat your budget without significantly upgrading your offense, but what if it is Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones?

Will the Packers be able to keep free agent RB Aaron Jones?

There’s a strong chance the Packers may not be able to re-sign Jones this offseason. Although there may be some truth to the running backs don’t matter argument, Aaron Jones is more versatile and less worn down than the typical free agent RB.

Is he worth an Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey-sized contract for the 2021 season, however? Probably not. Still, should the Packers perform some voodoo economics to keep him? Or is Jones destined to go the way of Le’Veon Bell if he doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback to keep opposing defenders out of the box?

Here’s a deep dive into the numbers for a player who might simultaneously be underrated and a risky choice for a long-term contract.

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Aaron Jones by the numbers

You probably know the basics. The Packers’ RB is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing and double-digit offensive touchdown seasons. He led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019. He’s also a fine all-purpose weapon, finishing 11th among running backs with 49 receptions in 2020.

Jones’ receiving chops should allay some of the fears of the RBDM skeptics. Anyone who has ever watched the Packers knows how much their lead RB contributes to the passing game.

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Jones’ relatively low mileage is also a plus. He finished 11th in the NFL with 201 rushes in 2020 and 15th with 236 rushes in 2019. Derrick Henry has 681 regular season rushes over the last two seasons. Aaron Jones, on the other hand, has just 437. In addition, the Packers’ RB was a lightly-used committee back in his first two seasons.

Jones only reached 20 carries in one game in 2020 and has rushed for 20-plus yards in just five career regular and postseason games. Free agent suitors need not worry that Aaron Jones’ wheels are about to fall off. 

Jones isn’t asked to plunge between the tackles 25 times per game because the Packers’ offense is built around Rodgers. Yet, Rodgers obviously makes life easier for his running backs because defenses rarely have a chance to stack the box.

Jones likely wouldn’t average 5.2 yards per attempt for his career if he played for the New York Jets. That’s why we need to examine some breakdowns and splits to determine where Rodgers and the Packers’ system ends and Jones’ capability as an RB begins.

Aaron Jones has consistently led the league in broken tackles

Aaron Jones led the NFL in broken tackle percentage, per Sports Info Solutions, with broken tackles on 13.9% of runs. He finished 14th in the NFL in 2019 with a broken tackle on 13.1% of his runs. Previously, in 2018, he finished seventh overall with a broken tackle percentage of 16.5%.

Folks who study analytics know that broken tackle rates for running backs can be volatile from year to year. So, the fact that Jones always hovers in the same statistical range and among the league leaders each year is an encouraging sign that what you see is what you get.

The Packers’ RB also finished third in the NFL with 3.3 yards after contact per attempt in 2020. Nick Chubb led the league with 3.7, and Henry finished second with 3.6. Yards after contact is another semi-useful indicator of how many yards a running back gains independent of his offensive line or team’s system.

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Football Outsiders has a metric called Success Rate, which functions like a running back’s batting average. A successful run keeps the offense ahead of the sticks (six yards on 1st and 10, a 3rd and 1 conversion, and so forth), while an unsuccessful run does not. Jones finished fifth in the NFL in both 2019 and 2020 with success rates of 56% and 59%, respectively. In 2018, he finished sixth with a 55% success rate.

Like batting averages, Success Rate has many limitations as an evaluative tool. However, Jones’ consistency is as remarkable as his broken tackle numbers. As a stat-savvy baseball fan, you may be wary of batting average, but you would still be happy to hear your favorite team was pursuing someone who batted around .310 every year for three years.

Jones faced minimal stacked boxes compared to other lead backs

All of these metrics and splits sound impressive. However, they don’t change the fact that opponents are worried about Aaron Rodgers first, Davante Adams second, and Jones a not-too-distant third. Fortunately, the folks at Sports Info Solutions make it possible to isolate Jones’ runs against eight or nine-defender boxes.

To get a clearer data picture, we also took out any runs inside the five-yard line, so Jones (as well as every other running back in the league) was not penalized for carries against 11-man goal-line defenses.

Jones only ran into a stacked box 41 times last season. To put that in perspective, he was tied with Alexander Mattison (Dalvin Cook’s backup for the Minnesota Vikings), among others, for 22nd in the NFL in that category! Henry, on the other hand, faced stacked boxes 138 times (more than three times as often!). Dalvin Cook himself saw 98 stacked boxes in 2020.

In truth, Rodgers and the Packers’ system really does protect Jones to a degree.

The Packers’ RB still fared well against the stacked boxes he did see

Now, for the good news. Jones averaged 6.6 yards per carry in stacked boxes, second-best in the NFL. Only David Johnson of the Houston Texans was better at 7.0 yards per carry. Thus, there’s evidence that Jones can be effective even if he gets fed to the wolves more often.

We need to be careful when granulating data and rates too finely, however. When dealing with just 41 carries, one or two big plays can skew the data. For example, Jones had a 46-yard run against a Carolina Panthers’ eight-man box in Week 15, inflating his YPC total.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence here to suggest that Jones could provide a new team with the same consistency, versatility, and big-play capability that he gave the Packers. Also, his workload has been low enough for four seasons that his original factory warranty still covers him.

Required legal disclaimer when discussing free agent running backs

Every single time a big-name running back becomes a free agent or is up for a new contract, there are lots and lots of articles explaining why he is an exception to the rule. The rule that paying big bucks for a running back is a terrible idea.

  • Todd Gurley is worth every penny of his new Los Angeles Rams’ contract! He’s so reliable! He’s a perfect system fit! And he’s a huge part of their passing game! (Gurley immediately succumbs to lingering wear-and-tear injuries.)
  • Le’Veon Bell was a great signing for the Jets! He will have fresh legs after his hold out! His patience makes him a unique runner! And he was a huge part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ passing game!” (Bell gets swallowed whole by the Jets dysfunction, then becomes just another guy for the Kansas City Chiefs).
  • Christian McCaffrey is worth … oops, he’s out for the year!
  • Saquon Barkley is … never mind.
  • (No one on Earth who is not related by blood to Jerry Jones thought Ezekiel Elliott was worth $90 million, so we’ll spare you that bit)

Some running backs are living up to their new deals

Not every running back turns instantly into “Replacement Level Ray” upon signing his second contract. Derrick Henry had another great year for the Titans in 2020. Alvin Kamara carried the New Orleans Saints’ running and passing game. Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns. However, it’s worth noting that Mattison was almost as effective when Cook was injured for two games. 

That said, it remains to be seen how many of these backs will produce on the second and third years of their contracts. Signing a free agent running back to a lucrative contract comes with staggering risk. The stats and splits above are reasons to believe that Jones is less risky than most of his peers. However, if we were to run a team, chances are we would invest any extra cash at wide receiver or edge rusher instead of running back.

What’s next for Aaron Jones as a free agent?

Cook, Kamara, Henry, and McCaffrey set the running back market in the ranges of $12 million to $16 million per year with $16 to $30 million in guarantees with their recent contract extensions. Jones’ next contract will fall somewhere within those broad ranges.

The Packers are about $28 million over the projected 2021 salary cap, per OverTheCap.com. They’ll reach compliance by cutting linebacker Christian Kirksey, restructuring tackle David Bakhtiari, and reading Aaron Rodgers’ moody poetry, or whatever.

Related | Top Green Bay Packers’ pending free agents in 2021

There remains a chance they try to squeeze Jones into the budget. While the current Packers’ front office doesn’t seem to be full of “let’s pay the running back” types, keeping Jones could help appease Rodgers. Then again, the current front office is DEFINITELY not full of “let’s appease Rodgers” types.

A number of teams are likely to pursue Aaron Jones in free agency

A few teams have money to spend in 2021 free agency and have needs at running back. The Miami Dolphins could use Aaron Jones as a Tua Tagovailoa security blanket after a year of grabbing running backs off of LinkedIn. Washington may pursue Jones to pair with Antonio Gibson in their backfield if they decide to draft a rookie quarterback instead of entering the Disgruntled Veteran Sweepstakes.

The Jacksonville Jaguars also have money to burn and a new head coach who probably doesn’t think the salary cap is real. The Buffalo Bills probably don’t have the cap space or inclination to make Jones an offer. Yet, let’s face it, Jones, Josh Allen, and Stefon Diggs would be a hoot.

With any luck, Jones will join Henry and Kamara in bucking the RBDM trend and prove that a big-money running back is not just a waste of cap space. Jones is a blast to watch. We hope that the current free agent running back gets paid similar to his peers, even though we are glad that we don’t have to be the ones who pay him.

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