After a spectacular start to his NFL career, the Green Bay Packers rewarded Aaron Jones with a four-year contract extension in the spring of 2021. Just one season later, Jones restructured his deal with the Packers to get more money up front and help the team out, but it put the length of his Green Bay tenure into question. Given a combination of factors, including his age and the volatility of the running back position, plenty is working against Jones, to the point where the 2022 season could be his final one in green and gold.
Let’s look at the timeline. Jones balled out for Green Bay in 2019 and 2022, rushing for over 1,000 yards in each season, adding 829 yards total receiving, and scoring 30 touchdowns. It was just about everything that you could ask for out of a running back, especially considering he was a fifth-round pick out of UTEP in 2017. The Packers’ front office found themselves in the dilemma of how much to pay a premium player for past performance, weighed against what you think he’ll be able to do for the team moving forward.
In March 2021, they gave Jones a 4-year, $48 million extension that paid him just a bit more than his rookie contract had him earning. He got the $13 million signing bonus up front, and the Packers paid him approximately $14.25 million total for the 2021 season. His play earned him life-changing money but also started a clock on his time with the organization.
The inevitable started to happen in 2021. Jones wasn’t bad, still tallying nearly 1,200 yards from scrimmage and scoring 10 touchdowns, but the balance of power began to shift to A.J. Dillon towards the second half of the season. In a Week 10 win over the Seattle Seahawks, Dillon had 21 carries compared to seven for Jones. Two weeks later, Dillon had 20 carries and Jones had 10 against the Minnesota Vikings. It stayed close the rest of the way. But if you factor in that Jones was making substantially more than the $850,000 that Dillon was bringing in, the equilibrium started to get out of whack.
Everyone and their mother knew that Green Bay was going to be in Salary Cap Hell unless many dominoes started to fall, and Jones (and his agent) began to see the writing on the wall. Pennies needed to be pinched somewhere. To avoid being an outright cut, Jones was willing to cooperate and work with Russ Ball and Brian Gutekunst to figure out a way to stick around at a price that made sense. The Packers’ front office devised a contract that would save the team $7.6 million this season, stretch Jones’ contract with two void seasons, and give him a decent 2022 payday at about $5.7 million all in.
The funny money that was then dangled following the 2022 season was merely an illusion. There’s no way that the Packers will be making a running back that’s on the brink of turning 30, the highest-paid player at his position of all time. It’s simply not going to happen.
That extension will end up being beneficial for both sides. Jones will still get paid handsomely in 2023, but it’s exponentially more likely to be the $6-plus million cap hit following a cut rather than the full $20 million as it stands now. Green Bay owes Jones $7 million if he’s still on the roster on the third day of the league year in 2023, which will come in March, before the draft. His contract makes him virtually untradeable. Therefore, depending on how the 2022 season goes, Jones will be looking at taking a much-more team-friendly deal to stay with the Packers or take his void year money and try to sign elsewhere. Given his love for the franchise and seeming understanding of the big picture, it’s conceivable that he’d be back with an understanding that he may be a third-down specialist.
That 2023 season sets up as a big one for Dillon. It will be the fourth year of his rookie contract. The Packers will have to make a decision about his future, much like they did with Jones in 2021. Green Bay likely wants to maximize that rookie deal as much as possible (i.e., give Dillon a ton of carries) and then assess the asset that is left standing after his four years. The Jones extension will likely play into the decision-making that the front office takes with Dillon. Not in the sense that Jones burned the Packers or that the contract is regrettable, but more so that it will still be relatively fresh data that the team can look to as a guide.
The running back position is perhaps the most brutal in all of sports. Look at the amount of talent that it chews up and spits out, churning through many players and rewarding very few with substantial money, especially in today’s NFL. Jones absolutely earned the contract that he signed. But the fact of the matter is that the Green Bay front office won’t continue to shell out that kind of money when the prime of his career is almost assuredly behind him. There are capable, more affordable replacements on the roster. If Jones wants to stick with the Packers long-term, he has two options: take less money, or become inseparable from Aaron Rodgers to the point where the quarterback demands he stays. (Kidding, but not really).
Jones has been an awesome player for the Packers and is by all accounts a great dude. He can certainly contribute at a high level in 2022 and will be instrumental as both a runner and pass catcher within Matt LaFleur’s offense. If it’s his last go-round, there’s no reason why it can’t be a great one in Green Bay for Aaron Jones.