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Dougherty: Packers make their priorities clear by retaining Aaron Jones

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GREEN BAY - This must be why the Green Bay Packers didn’t use their franchise tag on Aaron Jones.

They thought they had a pretty good shot at re-signing him without it, and they were right.

As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter and confirmed by, the Packers signed Jones on Sunday to a four-year deal that averages $12 million a year and includes a $13 million signing bonus.

Assuming those numbers are accurate – initial reports are often inflated, and the real numbers won’t come out until the contract is filed with the NFL Players Association – the Packers retained Jones for a reasonable price, even with the risks of signing running backs to expensive deals.

This really is an important move by general manager Brian Gutekunst and team vice president Russ Ball. Of course Aaron Rodgers is indispensable, but after him, Jones is the guy who makes their offense go. The only problem is he plays a position where guys often don’t last.

But if you want to know what he meant to the NFL’s top-scoring offense in 2020, look no further than the Packers’ home loss to Minnesota last season in Week 8, one of two games Jones missed last season because of a calf injury. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer normally doesn’t play much two-deep safeties, but with Jones on the sidelines, that’s what he did while holding the Packers to 22 points, almost 10 points below their 31.8 average for the season.

“Their plan was very simple,” Rodgers said after that game. “They played Cover-2, which is not really in (Zimmer’s) scheme over the years, so many plays today. They didn’t want to leave Davante (Adams) one-on-one; I think the one time they did, I threw a touchdown the first drive of the game, and that was about it.”

Zimmer was OK with an alternate plan because he didn’t have to worry about Jones. There might be a lot of decent backs in this league but not many change defensive game plans. Jones does. He stresses defenses because he’s capable of ripping off a big run any time he touches the ball and is good enough in the passing game to split out as a receiver too.

Even in today’s game, when analytics say running backs are disposable, the best ones still matter. Jones is in that group.

Based on the initial reports, Jones’ deal is in the ballpark of the contract extensions Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook signed a week into the 2020 season.

With all NFL contracts in general and running backs in particular, the guarantee is king. Kamara had $22.8 million fully guaranteed and received a $15 million signing bonus. Cook had $16.325 million fully guaranteed and got $15.5 million to sign.

Jones’ guarantee was his $13 million signing bonus, though you can throw in his likely $990,000 minimum base salary too. It’s almost a given that’s what his base salary will be this year, because that would keep his 2021 cap number low (about $4.24 million), and cap savings are at a premium for the Packers this year.

But let’s not get lost in the financial details. What the signing means is the Packers have a complementary backfield of Jones and 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon. If Dillon is as good as he looked in the one game he played a lot this past season – he had 124 yards rushing on 21 carries against Tennessee in late December – the Packers will have the quality depth in the run game they need in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.

Last season showed how much the run game can help Rodgers, who won his third league MVP with the help of a deadly play-action and bootleg passing game. Jones is more complete than Dillon because of skills in the passing game, but Dillon is a hammer who could allow the Packers to continue monitoring Jones’ playing time (60 percent of the snaps) and touches (17.7 per game the last two seasons) without a big drop off at the running back position when Jones is not in the game.

Gutekunst’s toughest call of the offseason was whether to prioritize re-signing Jones or free-agent center Corey Linsley, who was first-team All-Pro last season. It’s about as gray-area as these decisions get in the NFL, with strong arguments both ways.

The offensive line is crucial for protecting Rodgers against the best defensive lines, and especially with left tackle David Bakhtiari likely to miss the first four to eight games, did Gutekunst really want to have to replace an All-Pro center too?

Then there’s the track record of fast decline for running backs who’ve signed second contracts in the NFL. Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and even Devonta Freeman are object lessons in the risks of paying running backs big money. Injuries can send backs downhill fast.

But the threat Jones poses protects Rodgers too, and the cost to retain him ($13.99 million in first-year pay) is not close to prohibitive. We don’t yet know Jones’ pay for the first two years, but I’d bet it’s around $20 million. If the Packers get two more good years out of him – Jones turns 27 in December – they’ll have done well.

Whatever the risk, if it had been my call, I’d have made Jones the priority too. He’s just too good a player to let walk out the door.

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