In 2019, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones had a breakthrough season. He tied for the league lead in rushing (16) and total (19) touchdowns, as he got an awaited workload and became a fantasy stud.
But Jones’ game-to-game scoring splits were troubling, and regression has come this year with seven total touchdowns (five rushing) in seven games played. Four of those rushing scores game in the first three games of the season, and both receiving scores came within the first four contests.
Jones is also in the final year of his contract, with a higher yards per carry average than he had last year (4.8 vs. 4.6). But take away Week 2 against bad Detroit Lions’ run defense (18 carries for 168 yards, 2 TD) and that YPC drops to 3.8 in his other six outings.
Facing Jones’ contract year, the Packers drafted AJ Dillon in the second round of April’s draft. So they have some sort of replacement plan, if the don’t want to pay Jones. And at this point, it’s fair to say they’ll be hesitant.
The Packers have extended someone who was one of their notable looming free agents, giving left tackle David Bakhtiari a four-year, $103.5 million deal. As ESPN’s Rob Demovsky noted and Over The Cap data backs up, they are now over the projected salary cap in the $175-$176 million range for 2021.
So just to get under the cap now, restructures and cuts will be necessary. The disposability of the running back position makes going cheaper there a strong possibility. With Jones’ regression this year (expected or otherwise), he’s probably as good as gone.
Spotrac has tabbed Jones’ market value at $13.3 million per year, with a projected four-year, $53.4 million deal. That would be a top-5 running back deal, and someone might do it. Whether that would be wise is a different conversation. From this corner, Jones is good in multiple areas but not great in any.
If the Packers don’t re-sign Jones, and it’s trending that way for sure, here are three options to replace him.
3 Options For The Packers To Replace Aaron Jones
3. Jamaal Williams
The Packers could stay internal and re-sign pending free agent Williams at a cheaper rate, with an eye on pairing him with Dillon. Williams has shown well when given a bigger role (over 100 total yards in both games Jones missed this year), and he is a capable pass catcher.
It may come down to choosing between Jones and Williams for the Packers. The shorter and cheaper deal is in order, and that means Williams is the guy.
2. Phillip Lindsay
After going undrafted, Lindsay topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons. But the Broncos gave him a fine thank you by signing Melvin Gordon last offseason. Lindsay will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. An RFA tender from the Broncos is possible, if only with the idea of recouping a draft pick when another team matches.
Ideally, Lindsay (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) would operate as the “Lightning” to a bigger back’s “Thunder” in a backfield tandem. Dillon probably is not going anywhere in the Packers’ backfield for 2021, so Lindsay would be a nice contrast. And imagine what Lindsay could do in an offense with a good quarterback.
1. Najee Harris
Harris stepped into the workhorse role for Alabama as a junior in 2019, and he performed (1,224 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry; 20 total touchdowns-7 receiving). In six games so far this season, he has 714 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) with 14 rushing scores and 20 catches.
Harris came back to school for his senior season, which is not generally advised for a running back given the shelf life of the position. Then it’s become a pandemic-truncated campaign. But he has made his case to be the first running back drafted next April, in the conversation with Clemson’s Travis Etienne (who also came back for his senior season).
Could The Packers Draft Najee Harris?
Tankathon’s 2021 Mock Draft, updated through Week 10, has Harris going 56th overall to the Miami Dolphins. Walter Football has Harris to the Dolphins at No. 37 overall. The Packers current projected picks come in at No. 29 overall in the first round, and No. 61 overall in the second.
Harris is big (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), but he’s got a well-rounde skill set with some wiggle not typical of a back his size. Any remaining Alabama running back stigma may hurt Harris. But the Packers can make a case to consolidate draft picks (in 2021 or future) for a trade up to get him if need be. Then they’d have an immediate every-down back on a rookie contract.