2021 Free Agent RB Market Could be Good News for Packers

A loaded 2021 free agent class at the running back position could play in the Green Bay Packers' favor when it comes to Aaron Jones. 

Even though training camp and the 2020 regular season have yet to be played, many of us have started to take a look ahead to the 2021 offseason, where the Green Bay Packers are going to have some very difficult decisions to make. 

Included in Green Bay's upcoming free-agent class are five high-profile players, who were all major contributors this past season and are expected to be once again in 2020. Of course, this group is made up of David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark, Kevin King, Aaron Jones, and Corey Linsley. 

Once again, the Packers just aren't going to have much spendable cap space. At the moment, Spotrac is projecting just $16.4 million in available cap room next offseason; however, there are also other costs not factored in either. This means that re-signing all five players is a fairytale scenario. Realistically, Green Bay could likely bring back two of those players, and I'm sure we all agree that Bakhtiari and Clark are the easy choices. 

This, unfortunately, means that this could very well be Aaron Jones' final season in Titletown. 

Under Matt LaFleur, Jones put together that breakout season in 2019 that all of us had been waiting for. He would finish the regular season with 1,084 rushing yards, another 474 through the air, and a whopping 19 total touchdowns, 16 of which came on the ground and led the NFL. 

Jones is an ideal fit for LaFleur's outside-zone running scheme with his ability to find the hole and burst through, and we also saw him become a weapon in the passing game this season as well. During the four week stretch that Green Bay was without Davante Adams, Jones was Aaron Rodgers' top target as he hauled in 22 passes on 27 targets for 280 yards with three touchdowns. 

When Jones was on the field, and when he was off, there was a noticeable difference in this offense. And I mean noticeable. In an article by Bill Barnwell of ESPN, he pointed out that when Jones was on the field, the Packers' expected points per play ranked as the third-best in football, behind only Kansas City and Baltimore. However, when he was on the sidelines, Green Bay ranked 29th. Rodgers also benefited greatly from Jones' presence with a QBR of 68.7 when he was on the field versus a QBR of 28.7 when he wasn't. 

So as you can imagine, when it comes to Jones' future with the team, the Packers are in a very tricky spot. 

The hope is that we see the offense take a big step forward in Year 2 under LaFleur, and their young receiving corps along with Jace Sternberger at tight end continues to develop. Not to mention that Green Bay did spend a second-round pick on running back A.J. Dillon, who had shown-off that explosive playmaking ability countless times at Boston College.

If these players hit, then moving on from Jones becomes an easier decision. But if the offense performs similarily to how they did in 2019, I don't want to even try to picture what they'd look like without Jones to rely on. 

Although, from a pure football standpoint, re-signing Aaron Jones makes complete sense given his importance to the offense, as we've seen in recent years, NFL teams don't have to pay top-dollar for a running back to be successful. 

Of the last six Super Bowl winners, James White of the New England Patriots in 2017 came with the highest cap hit of any running back who led their team in snap percentage for the entire year. That cap hit was just $3 million. 

We also saw last season that the teams with the league's four highest-paid running backs didn't even make the playoffs. These teams and backs include David Johnson with Arizona, Le'Veon Bell in New York, Ezekiel Elliot with Dallas, and Todd Gurley in Los Angeles. All of which fall in the $13 million to $15 million per year range. 

Now, by no means is paying running backs top-dollar the sole reason that teams don't make the playoffs or don't win Super Bowls, but we've seen it's not necessary to accomplish those things either. 

So as I circle back to Jones and his pending free agency, there are a few factors in the Packers favor. The first is simply the reluctance from NFL teams to pay running backs. This, of course, drives down the price. The second is that next year's free-agent running back class is absolutely loaded. 

Joining Jones is Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, Tarik Cohen, Kenyan Drake, Marlon Mack, James White, James Connor, Phillip Lindsey, and Joe Mixon among others. 

With this many quality backs available, once again, the price is going to drop. 

Currently, Spotrac is projecting Jones to land a four year - $52.76 million deal on the open market. This comes to an average annual value (AAV) of $13. 1 million, which I see as a bit high given the number of other backs available and the fact that Derrick Henry - the league's leading rusher in 2019 - just a signed a deal with an AAV of $12.5 million. However, another similar performance in 2020 from Jones, and you never know.

If that is the case, any sort of deal around that amount is going to be out of Green Bay's price range. A more realistic contract that they may offer Jones is perhaps one similar to what Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers signed this offseason. The two backs have put up similar numbers over their careers since entering the NFL in 2017 - Ekeler with 3,047 total yards in 46 games and Jones with 2,962 in 40 games - with Ekeler accumulating more of his yards through the air while Jones has more total touchdowns, making it a fair comparison. Ultimately, Ekeler ended up signing on the dotted line for a four year deal worth $24.5 million with $15 million guaranteed. 

Keeping Jones in Green Bay with an AAV in the $6 million to $7 million range is a much more realistic scenario for the Packers. However, that may not be a realistic scenario for Jones, although a contract extension appears to be the best way to trying to achieve it. And take it as you will, but it's been reported by ESPN that the two parties - Jones and the Packers - have been in contract extension discussions this offseason. With uncertainty surrounding the running back market and Jones having a minor injury history having played in just 12 games during his first two seasons, perhaps he's open to the idea of locking into a new contract - albeit at a lower price - prior to hitting free agency.

When it comes to Jones' future in Green Bay, at this point, my guess is that he still ends up elsewhere. The Packers will be tight against the cap once again, and at best, Jones is their third priority at free agent and possibly even the fourth behind King. 

With that said, there is already an unwillingness around the league to pay running backs what they believe their value should be, couple that with a loaded free-agent class in 2021 at the position, and the odds of Green Bay re-signing Jones may have just increased a bit. 

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Born and raised in Green Bay, WI and I still call it home. After my family, watching the Packers, sharing my opinions on the team through my writing and interacting with other fans is my greatest passion. You can find me on Twitter at @Paul_Bretl. 
 

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Comments (16)

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Bearmeat's picture

July 17, 2020 at 01:47 pm

You've got to think that Dillon is Jones' insurance and replacement. If there's a season this year and if Dillon is effective, I doubt Jones is back.

Imagine this: Love at QB, Dillon at RB. That's your 2022, Packers fans. :(

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Oppy's picture

July 17, 2020 at 08:29 pm

No need for the frown face.

Hope for the next decade of winning packers football is not a a frown from me.

Change is inevitable.

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Stroh's picture

July 18, 2020 at 07:19 pm

I think Jones and Dillon will share the RB job this season. Jones has had his touches managed his entire career, and for good reason. He just isn't durable enough for a heavy workload. And I think the Packers would very much like a Jones/Dillon RB tandem fot the next 5 yrs, if they can get Jones on a team friendly deal. Something similar to Eckler would be the price point, maybe slightly more.

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Charvid's picture

July 17, 2020 at 03:19 pm

Next how about you walk us through who we could realistically cut/trade and what type of cap room each would free up. I’m thinking Dean Lowery, for one and replace him with someone on a rookie deal. Who else is there?

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AZ's picture

July 17, 2020 at 09:10 pm

I think you may be on with Dean Lowry. Also could easily see Billy Turner with all of the interior OL they just drafted. And if his play diminishes at all, Ricky Wagner will only see one year in GB, unless he’s willing to take a pay cut like Lane Taylor did. We’re going to need to draft at least one young, talented Tackle next year either way, and very likely in the first round depending on how the board shakes out at that time. That will have fans screaming with no WR in round one for another year...

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Stroh's picture

July 18, 2020 at 07:26 pm

Packers won't draft a WR in rd 1, its just not their MO. Unless a special WR somehow fell to them. They'll continue to use rd 2 for WR and RB. Round 1 they almost exclusively draft QB, OT, CB or Pass Rusher (Edge or DL). Its been that way since Wolf took over, except for Sherman's fiascos!

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Leatherhead's picture

July 18, 2020 at 02:10 pm

So the same people who decided less than a year ago to extend Lowry should change their minds now?

The organization likes Lowry. He’s big, durable, and smart. He helps create opportunities for the Smiths in the pass rush.

Read the coaching staff’s comments on Lowry. He’s not going anywhere this year.

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PhantomII's picture

July 18, 2020 at 03:15 pm

Yes. He does create opportunities for the Smiths by not sacking the opposing QB himself though. He's an okay backup while a starter catches his breath. I don't believe he had a single sack in 2019.

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Leatherhead's picture

July 19, 2020 at 02:50 pm

So, you don’t see him when he crashes down and takes out two blockers so the Smiths have a clear path. Watch more closely......he does it several times each game. I see it, the coaches see it.....I’m sure you can too if you try.

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PhantomII's picture

July 19, 2020 at 05:14 pm

He's not nearly as disruptive as Daniels was a few years back and Clark is getting worn down from all his double teams on his back. Clark won't last without a better DT next to him and Lowery is not it. It hurts the pass rush and also the run. Like I said okay rotational player. Probably would not be so bad if it weren't for all the other DT's not making a positive impact with their opportunities.

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stockholder's picture

July 17, 2020 at 07:36 pm

The NfL is talking Cap cuts. If that happens. I don't see them signing anyone. Even getting Rodgers salary too. Jones would be smart to take less.

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blacke00's picture

July 18, 2020 at 07:27 am

Stockholder, you are absolutely right. The NFL is talking Cap cuts. I said this before, "covid" IMHO is having an impact big time. I don't know this for a fact but I think drafing Love was insurance against Cap reductions. If these Cap reductions do occur, they may "have" trade Rodgers to get Cap relief. which then allows them to sign other positions. I'm wondering if covid didn't happen whether Love would've been drafted by the Pack...Just thinking out loud.

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zeroluv's picture

July 18, 2020 at 10:28 am

I would let Jones walk next year and get a third round compensatory pick for him. No way are RBs worth that price tag. Bahk and Clark need the be signed first. Dillon will be a beast for the next 4 years and replace Jones. You don’t draft a Rzb in the second round and keep Jones and Williams. I’d take the picks.

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Evodriver06MR's picture

July 18, 2020 at 01:51 pm

A 3rd for Jones?? You think somebody is paying him 15+ mil?? Not a chance. At best, we'd probably get a 5th, and for that, and what the price will be, it'll be worth it to keep him and pair with Dillon the next 4 years. We don't even know if Dillon will be worth a damn at the NFL level. Jones will probably get around 8, and at that price, the value he provides to the offense, he's well worth keeping.

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Stroh's picture

July 18, 2020 at 07:31 pm

I think they drafted Dillon specifically to pair him with Jones, not to replace him. That is of course, assuming Jones takes the deal the Packers want him at. They won't pay him top dollar that's for sure.

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thebeast431's picture

July 20, 2020 at 08:20 am

Just think in 2008 we were saying the same thing about Aaron Rodgers and Brandon Jackson. Turned out pretty well for 2010.

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