GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers have a multimillion-dollar conundrum on their hands.
What do they do with running back Aaron Jones?
Jones is coming off an electrifying third year in the NFL. He provided a tantalizing taste in his first two seasons by averaging 5.5 yards per carry in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, Jones stayed healthy and was made a focal point of the offense, and he responded by rushing for 1,084 yards and catching 49 passes for an additional 474 yards. Jones finished the season 12th in rushing yards, tied for first in rushing touchdowns (16), tied for first in total touchdowns (19) and seventh in yards from scrimmage (1,558).
A fifth-round pick in 2017, Jones will be entering his final season under contract and has put himself in position for a contract extension or, should he get close to duplicating his 2019 success in 2020, a big free-agent payday in 2021.
Is he worth it, though?
The Rams’ release of Todd Gurley on Thursday shows the perils of paying for a running back. In 2017, Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards and led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards, 19 total touchdowns and 13 rushing touchdowns. Before the 2018 season, the Rams gave Gurley a four-year contract extension worth $57 million and included $21 million guaranteed. In 2018, he led the NFL with 21 total touchdowns and piled up 1,831 scrimmage yards and 1,251 rushing yards. However, when the Rams needed him in the playoffs, he was banged up and a limited factor for their run to the Super Bowl. After averaging 23 touches in the regular season, he averaged just 11 touches in the playoffs.
In 2019, Gurley finished 20th in rushing and 46th in yards from scrimmage. After averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 9.8 yards per reception in 2018, he averaged 3.8 per carry and 6.7 per catch in 2019.
With that, the Rams decided to eat about $20 million in dead money rather than pay a $7.5 million roster bonus that had come due. From 2020 through 2023, Gurley was due about $22 million in base salary and $22.5 million on roster bonuses.
To be sure, Jones and Gurley are different stories. Gurley suffered a torn ACL while at Georgia. In his first three seasons, he had 914 touches. At UTEP, Jones missed most of the 2015 season with a torn ligament in his ankle. In his three NFL seasons, due in part to three MCL injuries in his first two season, he had 534 touches. Even his 285 touches in 2019 lag well behind Gurley’s 321 in 2016, 343 in 2017 and 315 in 2018.
Still, Gurley isn’t the only example of big money on running backs being flushed down the toilet. Nine running backs played under second contracts that had cap charges of at least $4.8 million in 2019. Their stories:
David Johnson, Arizona ($9.75 million): Johnson led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage, 20 total touchdowns and 373 touches during a prolific 2016 season. The next three seasons combined, he had 2,191 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. Somehow, the Cardinals spun a running back who averaged 3.6 yards per carry the last three seasons into receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a trade last week.
Todd Gurley, L.A. Rams ($9.2 million): His yards per touch went from 6.1 in 2017 and 5.8 in 2018 to 4.2 in 2019. He was released by the Rams on Thursday and given a one-year deal by Atlanta on Friday.
Le’Veon Bell, N.Y. Jets ($8.97 million): In 2016 and 2017 with Pittsburgh, Bell was a force. He rushed for 2,559 yards, piled up 3,830 total yards and scored 20 total touchdowns. After sitting out the 2018 season in a contract dispute, he signed a four-year deal worth $52.5 million with the Jets. Their reward last year? A feeble 3.2 yards per rush and 4.0 yards per touch.
Lamar Miller, Houston ($7.20 million): The Texans got good value out of Miller’s four-year, $26 million contract he signed in March 2016. From 2016 through 2018, he averaged 978 rushing yards and 31 receptions. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL and remains unsigned.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta ($6.75 million): After setting career highs with 1,079 rushing yards, 1,541 total yards and 5.5 yards per touch in 2016, Freeman signed a five-year contract extension worth $41.25 million before the 2017 season. He missed 18 games the last three seasons. In 2019, he averaged 4.4 yards per touch. The Falcons released him this week to escape the three years and $21 million left on the extension.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas ($6.34 million): Elliott, a first-round pick in 2016, inked a six-year, $90 million extension just before the 2019 season. After leading the league with 1,434 rushing yards and adding 2,001 total yards in 2018, Elliott had another massive year with 1,357 rushing yards and 1,777 total yards.
Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco ($5.75 million): In four seasons with Minnesota, McKinnon was a decent part-time player with totals of 1,918 rushing yards and 142 receptions. In free agency in 2018, McKinnon joined the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million deal. He has not played in a single game with the Niners.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati ($5.27 million): After rushing for 211 yards in 12 games in 2018, the Bengals gave Bernard a two-year extension worth $10.3 million just before the 2019 season. They were rewarded with 170 rushing yards in 16 games.
Dion Lewis, Tennessee ($4.86 million): After rushing for 896 yards with New England in 2017, Lewis signed a four-year deal worth $19.8 million with the Titans in free agency in 2018. In two years, he rushed for 726 yards and one touchdown. Last week, the Titans released Lewis to get out of the final two years of the contract.
NFL decision-makers seem to be keenly aware of the risk of paying a veteran running back. As of Friday morning, only four running backs have signed in free agency, with Jordan Howard’s two-year, $10 million deal with the Dolphins being the most expensive. Not only are Freeman, Miller and Lewis still available, but so are Melvin Gordon, a two-time Pro Bowler, and Carlos Hyde, who set a career high with 1,070 rushing yards last year.
Jones was the Packers’ best offensive player last season. It’s almost impossible to believe they would have reached the NFC Championship Game without him. Moreover, there’s no one on the roster who appears even remotely capable of replacing his all-around production. Still, the stories of Gurley and others provide a cautionary tale of paying for past production at a position with such a limited shelf life.
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