GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Feb. 27, 2019, Aaron Jones laid out an audacious series of goals.
In an appearance on the “Rich Eisen Show,” Jones said: “My goal is to help us get back in the playoffs and make it to the Super Bowl. That’s the main goal. Statistically, I want to lead the league in rushing, I want to lead the league in yards per carry, I want to lead the league in touchdowns.”
At that point in his career, Jones had rushed for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Asked if he was aware of how challenging it would be to lead the league in those categories, Jones gave a vintage Jones answer.
Jones had one of the best seasons in Packers history. He led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns and 19 total touchdowns. In franchise history, only Hall of Famer Jim Taylor had more rushing touchdowns in a season (19) and only Ahman Green had more total touchdowns in a season (20). With 1,084 rushing yards and 474 receiving yards, Jones ranked eighth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage. With a prodigious third season in the NFL, the Packers went 13-3, won the NFC North and reached the NFC Championship Game.
“I did sit back a little bit, just a second to reflect on leading the league in touchdowns,” Jones said during a Zoom call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. “That was one of my goals going into last year, and I said it on the ‘Rich Eisen Show.’ When I said it, people were probably like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s not even a full-time starter.’ And probably laughing. To just accomplish that and keep your goals and achieve them, you set them high and achieve them, that feels good.”
Now, as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, Jones has another audacious goal – especially for a running back, a position that’s considered a dime-a-dozen and expendable by many teams.
“Whether it’s my first year or my last year on a deal, I’m going to be just as motivated,” Jones said. “It doesn’t change just because a contract is on the line for me. I mean, I’m going to continue to work and do everything in my power. I trust my agency and the Packers. With that, I would love to be a life-long Packer. That’s my take on that.”
Whether Jones even gets a second contract with the team remains to be seen, though agent Chris Cabott said via e-mail that he has talked with the team “regularly” since the Scouting Combine. More often than not, second-contract running backs haven’t been worth their signing bonuses.
The Rams’ release of Todd Gurley in March shows the perils of paying for a running back. In 2017, he 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, which 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. After averaging 23 touches in the regular season, he had five touches for 13 yards in the NFC Championship Game and 11 touches for 34 yards in the Super Bowl.
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.
Last season, Gurley was one of five running backs playing under second contracts with salary-cap charges of at least $6.75 million. After gaining a league-high 2,118 scrimmage yards in 2016, David Johnson ($9.75 million cap) had 2,191 scrimmage yards the last three seasons for the Cardinals. Gurley ($9.2 million cap) saw his yards per touch go from 6.1 in 2017 and 5.8 in 2018 to 4.2 in 2019. After holding out for all of 2018, Le’Veon Bell ($8.97 million cap) averaged a feeble 3.2 yards per rush and 4.0 yards per touch last year for the Jets. Lamar Miller ($7.20 million cap) missed last season with a torn ACL. Devonta Freeman ($6.75 million cap) went from 5.5 yards per touch in 2016 to 4.4 in 2019. This offseason, Johnson was traded to Houston, Gurley was released and signed by the Falcons, and Miller and Freeman are unsigned free agents.
“I’m not really looking at the market,” Jones said. “I’m just focused on myself. I feel like I can play at a really high and elite level for a very long time. I’m just going to do what I can and hopefully that leads to me being a Packer for life. That’s my goal.”
As a fifth-round pick in 2017, Jones signed a four-year contract worth about $2.6 million. He got a big bump in pay for 2020, with his base salary going from $785,487 to $2.133 million as part of the NFL’s proven performance escalator. Bigger riches await – whether it’s with the Packers or in free agency next offseason.
“I trust my agents and I trust the Packers, and I just do what I can control and I’ll just continue to do what I’ve been doing,” Jones said. “Like I said, I trust them to get a deal done and it’s not up to me. It’s nothing I can control. That’s what I was always told as a little kid: control what you can control, so if I can control what I can control, I feel like it will be taken care of.”