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Dougherty: AJ Dillon impresses, but Packers should keep Aaron Jones

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - After what AJ Dillon did Sunday night, it’s easy to think the Green Bay Packers should save their money and move on from Aaron Jones in 2021.

No doubt, against the Tennessee Titans, Dillon looked every bit the quality power back Brian Gutekunst projected when the Packers general manager spent a second-round draft choice on him last April.

But this offseason if I’m Gutekunst I’m still retaining Jones, whether through a new contract or the franchise tag. There are several good reasons, which we’ll get into shortly. But while exchanging texts on the subject Tuesday, a high-ranking scout for an NFL team distilled the argument to its most basic.

“He’s one of their best players,” the scout said.

That he is.

Not to say there aren’t times when a team should part with a very good player. Decisions like these are made case by case. But a good rule of thumb if you want to win games is to not let your best guys get out the door.

Like a lot of personnel calls in the NFL, there are good reasons both for keeping Jones and letting him move on.

Assuming Dillon isn’t a one-game wonder, the case for letting Jones walk is based on a mainstream, publicly available analytics view. The pandemic is costing big cash and salary-cap space next year, and the Packers are one of 10 teams already over the projected $175 million cap as things stand now. Running back is the league’s riskiest position for injury and quick decline, and you’re better off trying to replace a back cheaply in the draft than shelling out big money to keep one on hand.

So if Dillon looks like a legit starter through the playoffs, let Jones walk and spend at other positions in a year when money will be tight.

But there’s more to it in my mind. For this team at this time, the stronger case is to keep Jones, or at least retain the option by tagging him. Here’s why:

* Look what coach Matt LaFleur’s run game has done for Aaron Rodgers. After three seasons that were subpar by Rodgers’ standards, at age 37 he’s back playing at an MVP level — in fact, this week he overtook Patrick Mahomes as the odds-on favorite for MVP according to BetOnline.

Rodgers still is a special arm talent but can’t carry a team like he did five years ago. As we’re seeing this year, pair him with a legit running game and he’s still among the elite of the elite. He’s not the scrambler he was in his prime, but his skills throwing the ball and reading defenses remain extreme. The threat of a strong run game gets the most out of his ability to get the Packers in the right play before the snap, as well as giving him extra time to throw after the snap.

But reliance on the run game, and a high attrition rate at running back, mean LaFleur needs more than one good one. Week to week you never know who won’t be available, and a serious injury if you don’t have quality depth is catastrophic. Look at the Los Angeles Rams’ decline since Todd Gurley’s balky knee ruined him about halfway through the 2018 season.

Dillon has hardly played, so the Packers have no idea about his durability. Just because he’s big (247 pounds) doesn’t mean he won’t get hurt. Eddie Lacy was a huge back yet missed 13 games in four seasons with the Packers.

* Jones is a difference maker and threat to turn any play into a big one. If defenses don’t game plan for him, he’ll beat them. Not to put too fine a point on it, but while Dillon was the breakout star Sunday, Jones made the play that turned the game. The first snap after the Titans had cut the Packers’ lead to 19-14 in the third quarter, Jones bounced a run outside and turned a nothing play into a 59-yard gain that set up an easy score. The rout was on.

Not many backs in the league could have made that run.

Jones also excels as a receiver and can line up anywhere. His only issue is durability – he has missed 10 of a possible 63 games in the NFL. With Dillon, managing Jones’ snaps isn’t a problem.

There’s a huge difference between a decent back (Jamaal Williams) and a top one (Jones). Sure, recent history shows you can find good runners almost anywhere in the draft — Jones was a fifth-rounder. But just because you can doesn’t mean you will. Former Packers GM Ted Thompson had to take a swing at three backs in one draft to discover Jones.

* Jones and Dillon are classic lightning and thunder. As impressive as Dillon was running between the tackles Sunday night, he doesn’t have Jones’ quickness to the edge. Defenses have to prepare for two completely different style backs, and against some teams one might offer a better matchup than the other. Dillon is an advantage in December and January at Lambeau Field. Jones offers the same indoors and on artificial turf. Either could be the difference in a big game.

For that matter, as my colleague Tom Silverstein wrote this week, Jones’ skills as a receiver mean LaFleur could use the two together at times, too. Another matchup defensive coordinators would have to spend valuable time preparing to handle.

There’s no question retaining Jones comes with a price. Signing him to a new contract is expensive long term, whereas tagging him puts a fat $10 million debit on a tight 2021 cap. It might mean, for instance, losing cornerback Kevin King, though King’s durability issues might put him in line for a one-year prove-it deal.

Still, if it comes down to the tag, $10 million isn’t bad for a player as dynamic as Jones and would carry only the one-year obligation. Though not ideal, the Packers have the cash to work around their cap issues without wrecking their financial future.

The question with the tag is what Jones would do. His only leverage would be waiting until the season opener to sign. That’s a bad outcome for both sides. If Jones missed training camp he might need a half-dozen regular-season weeks to get into game shape and be at higher risk of getting hurt during that time. But that might be enough to convince the Packers to trade him so he can get the financial security he thinks he deserves.

It’s all part of doing business in the NFL.

The bottom line? The Packers are positioned to challenge for the Super Bowl for the next couple years. Jones is a big reason why. Keeping him is money well spent, even if AJ Dillon is all that he looked like Sunday night.

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