Grading on Salary-Cap Curve: Running Backs
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Player grades have long been a staple of postseason analysis. Ours are different. So much of building a team is doing it within the constraints of the salary cap. Teams need their big-money players to come up big and some bargain players to outplay their contracts. Thus, our annual grades are done on a salary-cap curve.
Cap: $786,498 (56th at position, according to OverTheCap.com)
Season: Williams had the best season of his career in terms of yards per carry (4.3), receptions (39) and total touchdowns (six). Without the flash of Aaron Jones, Williams seems so ordinary. After all, Jones had 25 rushes of 10-plus yards this season compared to 27 in three years for Williams. But Williams runs hard, catches the ball and is excellent in pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, his average yards after contact on rushing plays has gone from 2.29 yards as a rookie in 2017 to 2.63 in 2018 and 2.81 in 2019, and he went from six missed tackles on receptions combined his first two seasons to 12 this season. He was a rock in pass protection with just one pressure allowed compared to eight last year.
“I felt like when Jamaal was out, you could see our team feel it a little bit,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said of Williams’ late-season shoulder injury. “He’s such an important part of not only our running game, but he’s an excellent pass blocker. He’s probably the best pass blocker we have on the football team right now from the backfield.”
Cap: $695,487 (75th at position)
Season: The greatest ability is availability. Because Jones was available, all of his ability showed up. He finished 12th in the league with 1,084 rushing yards. Of the top dozen rushers, his 4.59-yard average ranked sixth. He led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns and 19 total touchdowns. Jones added 49 receptions for 474 yards and three touchdowns; dwarfing his two-year totals of 35 receptions for 228 yards and one score. When Jones got rolling, the Packers were practically unbeatable; they were 6-0 when he averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 6-1 when he had at least 30 receiving yards.
In the open field, few backs are as dangerous as Jones. According to Sports Info Solutions, he finished seventh among backs with 44 missed tackles and 13th with a missed-tackle rate of 18.6 percent. For a smaller back, he showed his toughness and vision by ranking second in the league with 5.3 yards per carry on inside runs.
However, he fumbled three times and became something of a liability in pass protection late in the season, with five of his six pressures allowed in the final three regular-season games and two playoff games.
“Availability is one of the biggest things here and in the league,” Jones said. “If you’re not available, then you’re no good, pretty much. I made it one of my goals to play 16 games. To do that was one of my goals. To put all the doubters and the naysayers and everybody who was saying, ‘Oh, he’s injury prone or he’s this and he’s that’ to bed, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling.”
Cap: $536,514 (107th at position)
Season: The Packers used a sixth-round pick on the Notre Dame product but he played in only four games with 10 snaps on offense and 38 on special teams. He carried five times for 11 yards. “Dexter didn’t get many opportunities this year,” Gutekunst said. “Hopefully next year moving forward, he’ll see some opportunities, because he certainly has that kind of explosiveness to him.”
Cap: $169,412 (135th at position)
Season: Ervin rescued the team’s atrocious special teams and is worthy of a free-agent contract. Through 12 games, Green Bay’s nine punt returns produced minus-8 return yards. In the final four games, Ervin’s 11 returns produced 106 yards. He averaged 9.6 yards per punt return and 26.7 yards per kickoff return in regular-season action. With the offense desperate for weapons, Ervin got some run on offense. Between regular season and postseason, he carried three times for 35 yards and caught three passes for 18 yards. He mishandled a punt at Minnesota in Week 16 and a kickoff at San Francisco in the championship game.
FB DANNY VITALE
Cap: $720,000 (11th at position)
Season: After a strong training camp and preseason, Vitale surprisingly played only 170 snaps (15.8 percent). He caught seven passes for 97 yards, delivered as a run blocker and was perfect in limited snaps in pass protection. Plus, he was third on the team in special-teams snaps and special-teams tackles (seven). Because of his athleticism and experience as a receiver dating from his days at Northwestern, he’s a good fit for coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme.