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Matthew Coller: Aaron Jones is a difference maker

The former Packers running back joined the Vikings on Tuesday, giving them a chance to have a good running game for the first time in a while

The Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver history is well documented but their pen of historical running backs is no joke either. From Chuck Foreman to Terry Allen to Robert Smith to Adrian Peterson to Dalvin Cook, this franchise has routinely had dangerous players in the backfield. Over the last few years, however, the struck very little fear into their opponents with the running game.

In 2021, when Cook started to show the milage on his body, the Vikings finished 17th in rushing yards and 19th in yards per attempt — a significant fall from their top-five running game in 2020. Cook did not get back to form in Kevin O’Connell’s first year as head coach and the club ended the 2022 season 27th in yards, 26th in yards per attempt. O’Connell emphasized the run attack in the offseason and the Vikings added Josh Oliver as a big-time blocking tight end. They turned the ball over to Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler and ended the year 29th in yards, 24th in yards per attempt.

The Vikings were still able to create a fairly effective offense over the last two years with Kirk Cousins constantly slingling the ball to Justin Jefferson but it lacked consistency without a ground attack. In 2022 they only ranked 17th in percentage of drives in which they produced points and they had the 11th most punts. When they got ahead in games they regularly struggled to put teams away. They weren’t able to keep a struggling defense off the field.

In 2023, Cousins’ passing was the only offense the team had to begin the year and then when he went down Josh Dobbs and Nick Mullens were relied upon to throw the ball 30-plus times per game in part because the Vikings offense couldn’t sustain a rushing attack. By the end of ‘23 it was worth creating a pie chart of blame for O’Connell’s scheme, the offensive line and the running backs but we did see more explosiveness when Chandler took over as the starter for Mattison.

What the Vikings really needed was a running back who can make lots of different schemes work and turn missed blocks into successful runs.

On Tuesday that running back fell into their laps in the form of former Packers RB Aaron Jones. He’s the type that would have fit in with those great Vikings of the past.

Over his seven-year career Jones has rushed for nearly 6,000 yards and scored total 63 touchdowns. He averages a remarkable 5.0 yards per carry, tied for fifth best in NFL history, the same as Barry Sanders. Over his career, per PFF, Jones averages 3.2 yards per carry after first contact. To put that in context, only seven RBs last season were over that number and tackle-breaking machine Derrick Henry finished at 3.3 yards after contact in 2023. Not to mention he’s caught as many as 59 passes in a single season.

At his best, Jones completely shifts the offense. In his near 1,200 carries he has a 55% success rate, which is 12% better than Mattison’s career mark. His swan song in Green Bay last season showed exactly how dangerous the former fifth-rounder can be. He gained 100-plus yards at over 5.0 yards per carry in five straight games to finish his Packer career (including playoffs). Cook never put together five straight 100-yard games in his Viking career.

The only question is whether that is the version of Jones that the Vikings are getting in 2024 or the one who was battered early in the season and couldn’t handle a full workload. While he still averaged a solid yards-per-carry clip, Jones only carried the ball more than 15 times once between Week 1 and Week 15 and missed two different stretches of games during the year. In total he only posted 656 yards even with the blazing hot end to the year.

If the Vikings only get 889 total yards (rushing+receiving) out of Jones as Green Bay did, it would equal the same amount they got from Mattison in 2023 (892) but only at a more efficient clip. Is that good enough to change their fate as a rushing team? Probably only in stretches.

If the Vikings get the fully healthy version, as he was in 2022, they could get the 1,500 yard player who can play a major role in the offense and terrify opponents.

Older running backs are always risky. They don’t often sustain past Jones’ present age of 29. Since 2010 there have only been 18 seasons of over 1,000 yards by running backs 29 and older and six of them were by either Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore. Only seven of those years averaged more than 4.5 yards per attempt.

So there is some risk involved in the Vikings giving Jones a one-year deal but he won’t be expected to handle all the RB1 duties. Last season Chandler showed unique burst and ability to escape tackles, picking up 4.5 yards per carry on 102 runs. He struggled at times to master the details, particularly in pass blocking where he graded a 49.3 (out of 100).

If they can pair together and Jones’ workload can be mitigated then there could be an opportunity for Chandler to grow into RB1 by 2025.

The important part is that the Vikings are not likely to have a quarterback who is ready to handle the entire load like Kirk Cousins did offensively over the last three years while the running game sputtered. There was nothing more helpful to Jordan Love’s progress late last season than Jones’ dominating presence in the backfield. The Packers got into advantageous down-and-distances and ran play-action effectively. Love posted a 118.0 QB rating when using play-action, sixth best in the NFL.

If the Vikings are using Sam Darnold or Rookie QB X under center in 2024, their security blanket could be Jones. And if they are in the hunt for a playoff spot, he will be a weapon in the backfield that no opponent wants to see.

As a side note, nobody is happier than the Vikings franchise that he’s traveled westward. In 11 career games, he gained 847 yards at 5.6 yards per carry against the Vikings. Having him away from Green Bay alone is worth a few million.

January 20, 2024; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) celebrates after a two point conversion against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter in a 2024 NFC divisional round game at Levi's Stadium.

January 20, 2024; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) celebrates after a two point conversion against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter in a 2024 NFC divisional round game at Levi's Stadium.