GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 6: RB Aaron Jones (5-9, 208, fourth season, UTEP)
What a difference 12 months make.
At this point last year, Jones was filled with potential and surrounded by questions. His talent was undeniable. In his first two seasons, he averaged 5.50 yards per carry. At the time, among all running backs in NFL history with 200-plus carries, that was the third-best mark in NFL history. Jones averaged a league-high 5.47 yards per carry in 2018.
That was the potential for dominance. The questions, though, were obvious. Could he stay healthy? In his first two seasons, he played in 24 games (12 starts) but missed eight games. Could he carry the load? Could he be a three-down back? Could his production in Mike McCarthy’s scheme transfer to Matt LaFleur’s new offense?
The answers were overwhelmingly positive. Jones rushed for 1,084 yards (4.59 yards per carry) and tied for the NFL lead with 16 rushing touchdowns. He added 49 receptions for 474 yards and three more touchdowns, dwarfing his two-year totals of 35 receptions for 228 yards and one score. He finished with 1,558 total yards and tied for the NFL lead with 19 total touchdowns. Jones had more touches last season than his first two seasons combined but seemed unfazed by the workload. When the Packers needed him, he delivered 23 rushes for 154 yards and two touchdowns in Week 16 game against Minnesota, 25 carries for 100 yards and a critical 31-yard reception in Week 17 against Detroit, and 21 carries for 62 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win against Seattle.
“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.”
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.
With a total body of work, Jones went from question mark to 33rd-best player in the league in NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players.”
Now, the big question is whether the Packers can – or want to – keep Jones for the long haul. He is entering his final season under contract. A great player and great teammate, Jones might be in line for a lot of money. Then again, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson were elite players when they cashed in on their dominance.
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 that 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. 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 released him this offseason, finding it more digestible to eat $20 million in dead money than pay the $7.5 million roster bonus that was about to come due.
Gurley’s story isn’t unique. 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.
With Arizona, Johnson led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage, 20 total touchdowns and 373 touches during a prolific 2016 season that put him on the map as perhaps the best all-around back in the NFL. After missing almost all of the 2017 season due to injury, he signed a three-year extension worth $39 million just before the 2018 season. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2018, 3.7 in 2019 and was dealt to Houston this offseason.
Those cautionary tales have to be at the forefront of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s mind as he weighs whether to give his star running back a contract extension.
Why he’s so important: While Gutekunst contemplates money, coach Matt LaFleur will contemplate new ways to get the ball in the hands of his team’s best open-field player. When Jones got rolling, the Packers were practically unbeatable; they were 6-0 when he averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 8-0 when he had at least 80 yards from scrimmage. The depth at running back could be tremendous with Jamaal Williams and rookie AJ Dillon. It’s easy to see Williams and Dillon getting plenty of action at running back with Jones flanked out to create matchup problems.
“I want to win the Super Bowl,” he said during an offseason call with reporters. “We were one game short. I mean, it’s not all about me, it’s about the team and I feel like we all feel like we came up one game short, so I feel like that’s all of our goals and I’m focused on our team’s main goal.”