What started as a breakout season in 2017 quickly became what could’ve been. But that doesn’t mean Aaron Jones isn’t primed for greatness. Here’s why the Green Bay Packers’ second-year pro could be the NFL’s next big thing.
“There’s some running backs coaches who really like this kid,” NFL Network analyst Lance Zierlein commented. “[He’s] more of a change of pace [running] back…a guy who could maybe come in and fight for some third-down reps as well.”
Jones was one of three rookie running backs drafted by the Packers last year. Perhaps they didn’t know quite what they were getting.
Unpredictable circumstances forced Jones to grow up fast. In Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, he was thrown into the flames after successive injuries to Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams. Jones was the third man up.
He walked into the huddle, looked up at his quarterback and heard, “I want you to know, I’m probably one of your biggest fans in this organization, so if you want to make a statement, now is your time.” Hearing that from Aaron Rodgers didn’t leave the rookie star-struck though.
The injuries to Montgomery and Williams made Jones the de facto starting running back the next week – a chance to prove his true worth. He’d let his play do the talking.
Jones’ 19 carries for 125 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys was the only statement he needed.
He had another impressive performance in Week 7 against the New Orleans Saints, maybe even more so considering Brett Hundley was leading the way. Jones rattled off 17 carries for a career-high 131 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The hype-train would soon come to a screaming halt though. With Hundley at quarterback and an MCL sprain in his knee, Jones’ blockbuster season was derailed before it could gain any traction.
He finished the season having played in 12 games with four starts, ending with a final tally of 488 rushing yards on only 81 attempts – good enough for a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. He also scored four touchdowns on the year.
Playing the role of copycat
So what can we expect from Jones in 2018? He’s in a very crowded backfield, but his resume speaks for itself. Perhaps the Packers could take a page out of Sean Payton’s playbook, which heavily utilizes the running back in the passing game.
In 2017, Alvin Kamara was the biggest storyline at the running back position. The 2017 second-team All-Pro ran his way to rookie of the year, finishing with 1,554 total yards and 13 total touchdowns. He was the definition of a do-it-all running back.
Not only that, but the Saints offense was so dynamic that it supported another 1,000 yard rusher; Mark Ingram. Together, the two running backs formed the best tandem in the entire league. Kamara was the lightning to Ingram’s thunder.
What if the Packers implemented Jones in a similar fashion? Playing the role of Kamara, he’d garner 8-10 carries and catch 4-5 passes per game. Considering the copycat league that we’re in, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Although he had only nine receptions for 22 yards last season, Jones proved several times in college he’s more than capable of catching passes out of the backfield. Like Lance Zierlein stated, maybe he’d be a better change of pace back. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be productive.
Kamara accrued only 120 carries last season, but still racked up 728 rushing yards. What really made him special, though, was his receiving ability. He caught an astounding 81 passes for 826 yards.
The most receptions on the entire Packers roster last season? Davante Adams with 74.
This isn’t to say the Packers don’t have talented receivers. Nor is it to hype up Kamara as a Hall of Fame player. The argument is that Mike McCarthy should utilize Aaron Jones in a similar way.
Not only would it make Green Bay’s offense more effective in the passing game, but it’d allow them to be much more unpredictable.
Jones and Kamara compared very favorably coming out of college. They both ran a 4.56 40-yard dash, had similar vertical leaps (Jones: 37.5 inches, Kamara: 39.5 inches), compare similarly in the broad jump (Jones: 127 inches, Kamara: 131 inches) and had almost identical showings on the bench press (Jones: 16 reps, Kamara: 15 reps).
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In terms of play style, both demonstrate stellar vision as runners. They each excel at breaking tackles, extending plays and have outstanding agility and change of direction. Kamara may have slightly better hands, but each have the ability to receive out of the backfield.
Although neither are burners in the open-field, they’ve each proved they possess big-play capabilities. Jones may not be as explosive as Kamara either, but there’s no doubt their skill-sets remain very similar.
If McCarthy can formulate game plans tailored to his running backs’ strengths, the Packers backfield could be destined for greatness.
In terms of injury prevention, Jones has worked on strengthening his lower body this offseason. After suffering two knee injuries last season, the second year pro should be more equipped to handle an NFL workload. Speaking of which, the second year is typically when players see the most improvement in their play.
By deploying Williams as the battering, downhill runner and using Jones as the shifty dual-threat that he is, Green Bay could mold their backfield into a nearly identical shape of the Saints.
This, combined with multiple other factors, would allow Jones to thrive in a Kamara-like role. He could run to the tune of 100-120 rushing attempts coupled with 50-60 receptions, allowing him to gain at least 1,200 total yards – a number that would enter him into elite company as one of the NFL’s best pass-catching backs.
Jones may not have the flashy credentials Kamara holds, but he certainly has similar abilities. Even if he’s not placed in quite the same role, he could have nearly identical results. The Packers offense has a multitude of talent. It’ll be on Mike McCarthy to utilize it correctly.
Look for Aaron Jones to have a breakout season if the dominoes fall right.