GREEN BAY — While there was a reasonable debate to be had about the wisdom of the Green Bay Packers trading up to pick their quarterback of the future in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft, there were some who openly questioned if picking Boston College running back AJ Dillon in the second round might not have been an ill-advised selection, too.
But those who equated the Jordan Love pick and Dillon pick were apparently blind to the reality that the Packers are now facing a month out from the start of the NFL’s new league year and the start of free agency: The team could lose both of its top running backs, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, on the open market.
And considering how much of the offensive load that duo has carried over the past four years, even with the glimpses Dillon showed during his star-crossed rookie season — and the NFL’s trend toward using running backs up and discarding them instead of paying them — the prospect of not having Jones or Williams back has to be disconcerting to Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst.
In two years in coach Matt LaFleur’s balanced offense, which is predicated on a strong running game that sets up a dangerous play-action downfield passing game, Jones put up back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, tied for the NFL lead in total touchdowns in 2019 with 19 and has averaged 1,508.5 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns.
Despite missing two games with a calf injury in 2020, Jones set a career high for rushing yards (1,104) and matched a career best in yards per carry (5.5). Over the past two years, he’s averaged 266.5 offensive touches per season and played an average of 601 offensive snaps.
ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky reported Jones received multiple extension proposals from the Packers, but the deals lacked the guaranteed money Jones was seeking, despite containing average-per-year salaries that were commensurate with the NFL’s other highly compensated backs such as Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara.
Late in the regular season, Jones and his inner circle determined he needed to change agents, and he hired Drew Rosenhaus, who was in attendance at the Packers’ NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl LV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Jan. 24 at Lambeau Field. Jones had his worst game of the season that day, managing just 34 total yards on 10 touches, losing a costly fumble early in the third quarter and suffering a chest injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
“I’m not going to get into any of those specifics, but I will say we’d love to have Aaron back,” Gutekunst said during his annual after-the-season Q&A session with reporters. “He was such an important part of our offense this year. He’s a dynamic player and he’s absolutely everything we want in a professional football player — the way he goes about his business, the way he takes care of himself, he’s a great teammate.
“We’d certainly like to bring him back. Obviously, there’s some challenges. As we go through the next few months, I think we’ll be able to get some of those things to see if that’s going to be a possibility.”
The unsung Williams, meanwhile, appeared to be a more economical alternative to bringing back Jones at market price, but it appears Williams is set to test free agency, too. Williams never received an in-season offer from the Packers, according to one league source, and earlier this month also changed agents, hiring Bardia Ghahremani.
Williams was certainly productive even while seeing less playing time than Jones over the past two seasons, averaging 727 yards from scrimmage and 4.5 touchdowns on 148 touches per year while averaging 395.5 offensive snaps over those two seasons.
Williams also was the Packers’ best pass-protecting running back, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers often spoke of his value to the team because of his energy.
“Obviously I’m a big Jamaal Williams fan, not just his play but his energy and the person he is,” Rodgers said late in the season. “He’s a do-it-all guy. He’s a slasher, he hits the hole, he’s also great out of the backfield, he’s got really good feet.”
Williams (fourth round) and Jones (fifth round) were chosen 48 picks apart in the 2017 draft, befriended each other during the pre-draft process and seemed to handle their job-sharing arrangement about as well as two competitive personalities could during their four years together.
They also welcomed Dillon into their group and helped the rookie assimilate to LaFleur’s offense. Dillon, who was sidelined for five games following a Nov. 1 positive COVID-19 test, finished the regular season having carried only 46 times for 242 yards (5.3-yard average) and two touchdowns, but he did outduel Tennessee Titans 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry in a Dec. 27 matchup at Lambeau Field, carrying 21 times for 124 yards and both of his TDs.
Before the draft, LaFleur had said having three capable backs was on his 2020 wish list, and Dillon’s arrival gave him that.
“We feel good about that running back room with all three of those guys,” LaFleur said during the playoffs. “(It’s good for) trying to give defenses different looks, throwing different personnel groupings, trying to keep them a little bit more off-balance. Those guys have done a great job with that, but it could change each week.
“You saw when Jamaal was the lead dog, and Aaron Jones was out, what he was able to accomplish. So, we feel like we’ve got three starting backs.”
Or at least had. With Gutekunst and the rest of the league’s GMs expecting the salary cap to shrink, the Packers may have to find less expensive free agent alternatives if Jones and Williams both find suitors elsewhere. Or, perhaps one or both will find soft markets and the Packers will be able to re-sign at least one of them.
“It’s a unique year. It’s very challenging,” Gutekunst said. “Obviously, we’re not the only team that has these challenges, so I’m confident we’re going to be able to do what we need to do to compete next year. There will be some challenges. There’s going to be some hard decisions. You certainly do plan for a pandemic, but … we’ve been pretty disciplined in our approach over the years that we’re going to be able to take this challenge on without gutting our team.”
Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures
Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures
Check out photo galleries from every game of 2020 through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
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