If shorthanded at WR, Packers should lean on Aaron Jones in passing game

Oct 16, 2022; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) catches a pass during warmups prior to the game against the New York Jets at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 16, 2022; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) catches a pass during warmups prior to the game against the New York Jets at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Wednesday injury report only featured six players for the Green Bay Packers, but three of them were receivers, including Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, along with rookie Dontayvion Wicks. All three were listed with hamstring injuries.

Watson and Doubs both did not participate, while Wicks was a limited participant. As Matt LaFleur often says when asked about players on the injury report, the Packers will give Watson and Doubs the week and see where they are at on Sunday.

It goes without saying, but in an already inexperienced wide receiver room, the impact of not having Watson or Doubs, let alone being without both, can’t be overstated. There is the impact that each brings as pass-catchers, Doubs with his refined route running abilities, and Watson with his speed and big play ability from any part of the field, but the presence of these two also helps create opportunities for others with the attention that they draw.

Potentially, the most experienced receiver on the field Sunday for the Packers could be Samori Toure, who has 110 career NFL snaps. Jayden Reed and Malik Heath are both rookies, as is Grant DuBose, who could potentially be elevated from the practice squad. At tight end – a position that comes with a notoriously difficult jump from college to the NFL – the Packers have three more rookies in Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft, and Ben Sims, and more of a fullback in Josiah Deguara.

Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon were already going to play key roles in this game, even if both Watson and Doubs are available. For starters, a strong run game will help open up play-action and, in general, opportunities in the passing game, taking some of the burden off of Jordan Love’s shoulders. This is also a Bears defense that was one of the worst in football last season at stopping the run.

However, depending on the receiver situation, instead of relying so heavily on a young group of receivers and tight ends, it should be Jones who becomes the focal point in the passing game.

Since LaFleur took over as head coach, we’ve seen Jones be an important part of the passing game. Last season, he finished second on the team in targets with 72. The previous season, he also finished second in targets with 65. But there’s a difference between being a consistent part of the passing game and the guy in the passing game. Potentially without Watson or Doubs, Jones may have to be the guy this week.

We’ve seen Jones used in this capacity on a few occasions in the past. In one instance during the 2019 season against Kansas City when the Packers were without Davante Adams, Jones led the team with seven receptions for 159 yards and two receiving touchdowns. That same season against Dallas, Jones again led the Packers in catches with seven, totaling 75 yards. In 2021, when Green Bay was depleted at the receiver position against Arizona due to COVID, Jones again was a big factor in the passing game, totaling seven receptions for 51 yards. It’s also important to note is that Green Bay won all three of those games as well.

Jones, of course, can get the ball out of the backfield as a pass catcher but he also has the ability to line up in the slot or out wide, where nearly 25 percent of his combined snaps from 2022 came from, according to PFF. This element can create mismatches depending on how the defense defends him as well as one-on-one opportunities.

Jones has been targeted most frequently near the line of scrimmage or in the quick passing game where he can get the ball in space and make plays. Last season, he ranked sixth among all running backs in total yards after the catch. With that said, although not asked to do it often, Jones has shown that he can win away from the line of scrimmage as well. His six targets 10 or more yards downfield in 2022 was the second-most among running backs behind Christian McCaffrey’s seven. Jones’ 60 receiving yards on those passes were tied for the third-most out of all running backs.

With all of that said, for now, we are still in wait-and-see mode with how the rest of the week plays out for Watson and Doubs. But if the Packers are without either, while the other receivers and tight ends will still be asked to make plays, recent history suggests that Green Bay is going to lean heavily on Jones if they find themselves short-handed at receiver—a task that Jones has performed well with in the past.