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Jones Shows Peril of Second-Contract Running Backs

With a new contract, Aaron Jones has been good. He just hasn't been great. Here's a look at Jones and the NFL's other high-paid running backs.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – With second-round pick AJ Dillon on the roster and the Green Bay Packers wrestling with a massive salary-cap problem, Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones seemed destined to depart in free agency.

Instead, he stayed in Green Bay with a four-year deal worth $48 million.

It was an expensive gamble by general manager Brian Gutekunst.

From one perspective, it showed his all-in approach to this season after falling short in back-to-back NFC title games. Jones is one of the top running backs in the NFL, and there’s little doubt the team would be in a better position to finally get back to the Super Bowl with Jones part of the backfield.

On the other hand, free-agent running backs often aren’t worth the investment.

With the Packers boasting a 9-3 record at the bye and looking every bit like a championship contender, that second-contract dichotomy is as true today as it was when Jones re-signed on March 14.

Jones is one of eight running backs averaging more than $8 million per season. Actually, he’s one of eight running backs averaging at least $12 million per season. Here’s the tale of the financial tape:

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina (five years, $64.1 million; $16.0 million average): McCaffrey is back on injured reserve, his season complete. He’s played just 10 games the last two seasons and recorded 1,159 yards with eight touchdowns from scrimmage. He had more than double that – 2,392 yards and 19 touchdowns – in 2019 alone.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas (six years, $90 million; $15 million average): After leading the NFL with 108.7 rushing yards per game in 2016, 98.3 rushing yards per game in 2017 and 95.6 rushing yards per game in 2018, he’s at about 65.0 yards per game for the second consecutive season. In 2018, he averaged 67.7 yards per game after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans (five years, $75 million; $15 million average): In 2020, Kamara led the NFL with 21 total touchdowns, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and posted his fourth consecutive season of more than 80 receptions. This year, he’s missed three games with a knee injury. He’s averaging only 3.6 yards per carry, and his 4.7 yards per touch is down sharply from last year’s 6.3.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota (five years, $63 million; $12.6 million average): Cook is coming off career highs of 1,557 rushing yards, 1,918 total yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 17 total touchdowns and 5.0 yards per rush. This year, he’s played in nine of 11 games and is expected to miss two more games with a dislocated shoulder. He’s rushed for four touchdowns and his rushing output is down about 25 yards per game.

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Derrick Henry, Tennessee (four years, $50 million; $12.5 million average): The bruising Henry missed two games in his first five seasons. He’s missed the last three games with a broken foot and isn’t expected back anytime soon. After leading the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards in 2019 and 2,027 rushing yards in 2020, when his 1,490 rushing yards after contact would have put him second in the overall rushing race, he was on pace for another 2,000-yard season in 2021. However, his yards per carry was down from 5.4 last year to 4.3 this year.

Nick Chubb, Cleveland (three years, $36.6 million; $12.2 million average): When healthy, Chubb is one of the great runners in the NFL. His 5.3-yard career average is one of the best in NFL history. He’s averaging a league-best 5.8 yards a pop this season. He missed four games due to injuries in 2020 and missed three this season due to a calf injury and COVID. Thanks to three games of 130-plus rushing yards in a span of four weeks, he’s fourth in the league with 867 yards.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati (four years, $48 million; $12 million average): Coming off a career-high 165 rushing yards vs. Pittsburgh, Mixon is third in the NFL with 924 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. After missing 10 games last season with a foot injury, he is on pace for career highs of 1,428 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns and 40 receptions.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay (four years, $48 million; $12 million average): Jones remarkably missed just one game with a knee injury. In 2019, he led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns and 19 total touchdowns. In 2020, he set a career high with 1,104 rushing yards. He entered this season with a career average of 5.16 yards per carry, fifth-best in NFL history among running backs. This year, due in part to losses on the offensive line, he’s averaging only 4.24 yards per carry.

In terms of yards from scrimmage among running backs this season, Mixon is second, Henry is third, Cook is seventh, Chubb is ninth, Elliott is 10th, Jones is 13th, Kamara is 15th and McCaffrey is 20th. Of the 31 running backs who have at least McCaffrey’s 99 carries, Chubb is first in yards per carry, Cook is eighth, Elliott ninth, McCaffrey is 13th, Mixon 14th, Henry 15th, Jones 17th and Kamara 27th.

If the playoffs were to start today, four of the eight (Elliott, Henry, Mixon and Jones) would be in the postseason.

Taken as a group, the league’s highest-paid running backs have mostly been good. But they haven’t been great, especially when compared to their past greatness. Whether it’s a bad-luck injury or the wear-and-tear from an accumulation of touches throughout their professional and collegiate careers, that is always the danger of re-signing a star running back.

In many cases, the team is merely paying for past production. After all, how do you project future production from a player such as Jones (846 touches in his first four seasons) or McCaffrey (938 touches in three seasons before he was extended) given the violence of the position?

All of which brings us back to Jones. With the Packers in win-now mode, retaining Jones was a key move by Gutekunst. And, from the team perspective, the deal was structured with that second-contract reality in mind.

Jones has cap charges of about $4.5 million this year and $9 million in 2022 before soaring to $19.25 million in 2023. Thus, it’s really only a two-year deal and the Packers can move on before having to pay a $7 million roster bonus on the third day of the league-year in 2023. Given everything Jones brings to the table, re-signing him remains the right move.

Finances aside, the Packers need the vintage Jones for the stretch run and the playoffs. Last season, of the 21 backs to get 160 carries (10 per game), Jones ranked fourth with 3.54 yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, of the 27 backs with 110 carries (10 per game for those who’ve had their bye), Jones is 18th with 2.73 yards after contact. His yards per pass route is down slightly, as well.

Jones, as fast and fearless as ever, has been good. He just hasn’t been great. Greatness was the expectation when the Packers re-signed him, and greatness is what they’ll need to win a championship.

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