Grading the Packers on Salary-Cap Curve: Running Backs

In Part 2 of a series, we look at the impact of Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and the rest of the running backs.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Player grades are a staple series of stories at the end of every season. Ours are different, as we grade based on their impact compared to the salary cap. That’s because the cap is such a big part of building a roster. Not only must a team’s high-priced players deliver but it must have some of its less-expensive players outperform their contracts. Generally, the Green Bay Packers got those contributions on the way to a second consecutive NFC Championship Game.

This series continues with the running backs. All salary data is from OverTheCap.com.

Jamaal Williams

No. 32 among running backs with $2,274,498 cap charge

Williams flourished in Matt LaFleur’s zone-based running game. After averaging 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie and 3.8 in his second seasons, those numbers were up to 4.3 last year and 4.2 this season.

Williams doesn’t do any one thing at an elite level but he does everything at a winning level. Not only did he rush for 505 yards this season, but he caught 31-of-35 passes (88.6 percent) for 236 more yards. He plays bigger than he is, whether it’s running into the teeth of the defense or picking up a blitzer. In four seasons, he has zero fumbles.

However, he is entering free agency at about the worst time possible. With a declining salary cap meaning limited spending money for most teams, how much of a market will there be for a back who’s not a breakaway threat? For his career, his 10-yard run rate is 7.6 percent. Of the 47 backs with at least 100 carries, Williams gained 13.2 percent of his yards on runs of 15-plus yards, the seventh-lowest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. According to Sports Info Solutions, he broke a tackle on 10.1 percent of his carries, eighth-lowest among those with 100 carries.

Williams might not be a true starter but he’s a dream No. 2.

Grade: B.

Aaron Jones

No. 34 with $2,182,002 cap charge

While Williams faces a questionable free-agent market, Jones figures to be paid handsomely, whatever the cap. Great players will always get paid, and Jones is a great player.

Among all backs in NFL history with at least 650 carries, Jones ranks sixth with a 5.17-yard average. He’s averaged at least 5.47 yards per carry in three of his four seasons. He had another great year in 2020. While he didn’t find the end zone nearly as often as last year (11 total touchdowns vs. 19 in 2019), he rushed for a career-high 1,104 yards and averaged 5.49 yards per carry.

Where Jones really jumps to the forefront is with his explosiveness. His ability to cut and go without losing speed is elite. His career 10-yard run rate is 13.1 percent as defenders are constantly forced to dive at ankles. According to PFF, 33.1 percent of his rushing yards came on runs of 15-plus yards, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. He forced a missed tackle on 18.1 percent of his carries, 11th-best among backs with 100 carries, according to Sports Info Solutions. Jones added 47 receptions. Like Williams, he was probably underutilized in that phase of the game.

Jones fumbled only six times in 782 career regular-season touches. But he fumbled twice in the NFC Championship Game, including a turnover that put the Packers in a deep, deep hole to start the second half and ended his day due to injury. For such a productive and popular player, it was the most unfortunate of endings.

Grade: A.

AJ Dillon

No. 58 with $961,060 cap charge

Dillon, the team’s second-round pick, had a mostly inconsequential rookie season. It wasn’t his fault that LaFleur went with the proven one-two punch of Jones and Williams. A bout with COVID, which sidelined him for more than a month, didn’t help matters. In 11 games, he rushed 46 times for 242 yards (5.3 average) and two touchdowns. Most of that came on Dec. 27 against Tennessee, when he rumbled 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. All of his potential showed up that night, when he powered for extra yards and ran away from defenders.

According to Sports Info Solutions, of all running backs with at least 45 carries, Dillon was No. 1 with a broken-tackle rate of 26.1 percent. SIS gave Dillon 12 missed tackles on 46 carries. That’s as many as Williams on 119 carries.

With Jones likely to depart in free agency, and maybe Williams, as well, Dillon will be asked to carry a much bigger share of the offensive load next season. He seems up to the task.

Grade: D-plus.

Tyler Ervin

No. 67 with $887,500 cap charge

Having excelled as a returner upon his late-season arrival last year, the Packers tried to make Ervin something he’d never been in his previous four seasons: a key part of the offense. Injuries, however, limited him to only eight games. He averaged 5.2 yards on 13 carries and 7.6 yards on 11 receptions. Meanwhile, he went from explosive returner to just another member of Green Bay’s feeble cast of kick-returner characters. As is the case with Jones and Williams, Ervin is headed to an uncertain free agency with a five-year resume that includes just 27 receptions and 19 rushes.

Grade: D.

Dexter Williams

No. 143 with $229,071 cap charge

A sixth-round pick last year, Williams got his big chance at San Francisco. With Dillon out with COVID and Jamaal Williams out after being deemed a high-risk contact, Dexter Williams was elevated from the practice squad. He carried twice for 8 yards before suffering an injury that ended his night. He never saw the ball the rest of the season.

In seven career games, he’s carried seven times for 18 yards. With Jones, Jamaal Williams and Ervin headed to free agency, he will face what might be a do-or-die training camp this coming summer.

Grade: F.