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Dougherty: Playing tag with Aaron Jones could benefit Packers in draft


GREEN BAY - If the Green Bay Packers aren’t going to pony up the guaranteed money for Aaron Jones, they might as well use their franchise tag and trade him if they can.

Then they’d get a draft pick for Jones sooner, and probably higher, than if he leaves as a free agent.

That is, in the free-agent compensatory system, Jones likely would land them a pick in the fourth round of the 2022 draft. But two high-ranking scouts for other NFL teams predicted the running back might yield a second-round pick this year in a trade.

“Dee Ford concept,” one of the scouts said, referring to the outside pass rusher the Kansas City Chiefs tagged and traded to San Francisco in 2019.

This would hardly be an ideal outcome for the Packers, because Jones is one of their best players. After Aaron Rodgers, he’s the guy who makes their offense go. It’s generally not good business in the NFL to let your best players walk out the door.

But general manager Brian Gutekunst and vice president Russ Ball appear to have come close to maxing out their offer Jones. According to a report from ESPN.com, the Packers have offered Jones good money in average pay per year but with a modest guarantee, and in all contracts but most especially at running back, the guarantee is what counts.

The two most obvious comps for Jones are Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, who signed new deals last September. Cook has $26 million guaranteed, Kamara $22.8 million.

If Jones isn’t as good as them, he’s close. But he’s also small (listed at 208 but probably is closer to 200) and has durability issues that keep the Packers carefully monitoring his workload. The last two seasons he has averaged 17.8 touches a game to Cook’s 23.5.

The Packers are surely concerned about the 26-year-old Jones’ shelf life. I’d still argue that a guarantee of about $18 million would be fair. Whether Jones would take it is another question.

Regardless, you probably know the Packers’ cap and budget are in shaky shape, though they’re hardly alone in that regard. Maybe they’re holding the line with Jones because they think his market won’t be as robust as in a normal year.

Green Bay is about $12.5 million over the cap, according to independent Packers cap analyst Ken Ingalls. Even with radical cap maneuvering (major contract restructures, contract extensions and roster cuts), they’re still likely to have only between $15 million and $20 million in cap room to re-sign their own players and add free agents in the offseason.

We’re still three weeks away from free agency, and for both sides deadlines are when reality hits, minds focus and deals get done. As the open market nears, the Packers still could very well reach a cap-friendly agreement with Jones or All-Pro center Corey Linsley, or, though it doesn’t seem likely, maybe even both. There’s also the chance Jones and Linsley hit the market.

In any event, this year’s low franchise tag for running backs has to be tempting for Gutekunst. Tags are based on a percentage of the cap, and with the cap going down this year, Over The Cap projects the tag for backs to be a little more than $8 million. Teams were able to start tagging players late this week and have until March 9 to do so.

Still, tagging Jones to keep him is fraught with potential complications.

For one, it would immediately eat up $8 million-plus on the cap regardless of whether he signs it. That might leave only $8 million to $10 million for bargain hunting in free agency.

On top of that, there’s the question of what Jones and agent Drew Rosenhaus will do if tagged. If Jones doesn’t sign the tender, he doesn’t have to show up.

He could sit out the offseason and training camp, then show up the week of the opener. But latecomers often get hurt, and Jones would need at least a month and probably more to get into game shape. He’d also still collect his $8 million and be a free agent again next year.

Or, Jones could sit out up to the first 10 weeks of the season and then sign the tender. He’d only be paid for games after he signs but would still be credited with the season and be a free agent again in ’22. And after sitting out more than half the year he probably wouldn’t be ready to play much until late December.

None of those outcomes is attractive for the Packers or Jones. The whole point of retaining Jones is to have him help win games, and the more games he misses, the less he’s helping you win. But if you’re Jones, sitting out is your only leverage to get the best possible contract, or a trade to a team that will pay it.

If Gutekunst and Ball have made their last, best offer, and Jones won’t take it, then the Packers are best off tagging and trading him. Kansas City traded Ford in early March of ‘19, before free agency started.

Even if the Packers could only get a third- or fourth-rounder, and not the second-rounder the two scouts predicted, they’re still better off with a pick this year instead of next. And if they can’t work out a trade and need the cap room, they can rescind the tag at any time (and make Jones a free agent).

Losing Jones would be no small thing; he makes plays and changes defensive game plans.

But if Gutekunst and Ball have drawn the line, then 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon is on hand to take over as the starter, and drafting a running back moves way up the priority list. Coach Matt LaFleur’s zone-run offense demands at least two quality backs, and the Packers are in no position to pay Jamaal Williams the middle-class money he’ll get in free agency. They really would need a more dynamic second back, anyway.

A lot can happen in the next three weeks. But if worse comes to worst, the Packers should tag and try to trade Jones rather than just let him walk. They’ll need the extra draft pick now more than ever.

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