Going Deep: The Elite Efficiency of Aaron Jones
As I finalized my rankings of the top 80 running backs for fantasy football in 2019, I began to look at average draft position for the first time. After declaring myself high on Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones for the entire offseason, I was surprised to find that I was very much in line with the consensus when it comes to ADP. I decided that I needed to dig further into Jones in an attempt to find out if I was ranking him too low or if the public has simply caught up to the hype.
Availability and Coaching
Jones has been held back by lack of volume thus far in his NFL career for a variety of reasons. He suffered a right MCL sprain in Week 10 of his rookie year, which knocked him out of that game and the following two games as well. Jones returned to play four games, only to exit with a left MCL sprain in Week 16; this also cost him Week 17 and ended his rookie season.
Jones started 2018 off with a two-game suspension due to a marijuana-related charge and then proceeded to play injury-free football until being forced out of action over the final two games of the season with another sprain of his right MCL. Sprained MCLs have been a common occurrence for Jones in his brief NFL career, and this injury is the biggest risk to consider when drafting him in 2019.
When Jones has been healthy, his usage has left something to be desired. Jones has played in 24 games in his career and only reached double-digit carries in 12 games–a disappointing number for a running back averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt. It could be argued that former coach Mike McCarthy was simply playing it safe with an injury-prone running back, but McCarthy seemingly looked for reasons to dock playing time for Jones including last year when the coach said: “there’s more to playing the position than just running the football.” With a standout offensive line and a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who was often playing injured, it’s confusing that McCarthy didn’t lean on his most efficient runner more often, especially considering that Jones has shown ability in the passing game as well. And while Jamaal Williams is certainly a better pass blocker, Jones isn’t so bad at blocking that the rest of his contributions are severely diminished.
With 5.5 yards per rushing attempt in each of his first two seasons in the league, Jones finds himself in some exclusive company. Only 11 running backs over the past ten years have recorded more than one season averaging at least five yards per rush while receiving a minimum of 80 rushing attempts per season. The list below is full of promising names for fantasy owners, and Jones makes the cut after only two NFL seasons.
|# Of RB Seasons With 5 Y/A Since 2009 (Min 80 Att)|
It’s fair to point out that many other talented running backs did not maintain the necessary per-carry average of five or more yards because their teams used them heavily, in turn lowering their high yards per rush. We would gladly accept sub-five yards per rush from Jones, though, if it meant a heavier workload as that has been the biggest hindrance to his fantasy super-stardom thus far.
Jamaal Charles is a name that comes up often when researching former running backs with an excellent yard per rush average. To compare any running back to Charles is unfair, especially one like Jones with only 214 career carries under his belt. Charles, after all, finished his career with 5.4 yards per rush on 1407 career attempts. But just for curiosity’s sake, let’s compare Jones and Charles on a per-game basis over their first two seasons in the NFL:
|Player||Rush Att/G||Rush Yds/G||Rush TD/G||Receptions/G||Rec Yds/G||Rec TD/G|
Jones compares extremely favorably to Charles on the ground through two seasons, averaging nearly identical usage and efficiency with Jones holding a significant touchdown advantage. Charles blows Jones away as a pass-catcher, however, averaging almost double the receiving yards per game through two seasons. As the following table shows, Charles also spent more time on the field, which shows up in their overall stat lines through two seasons:
Still, it’s impressive that Jones can be compared to Charles at all as Charles is one of fantasy football’s great running backs. Charles would go on to average 6.4 yards per rushing attempt in his third year, and expecting something similar from Jones in 2019 would be irrational. However, Jones has shown impressive efficiency that puts him in rare company, and a combination of health and rational coaching could propel Jones to a breakout year.
Lacking elite top-end speed and strength, Jones profiled as a slightly above average running back according to combine measurements. Jones was drafted in the fifth round by the Packers and was seen as a potential late-round steal with scouts primarily concerned with his level of competition at UTEP, his durability (Jones missed ten games in 2015 due to a foot issue), and his middling 40 yard dash time. They loved his excellent burst and agility, and Jones utterly dominated the backfield at UTEP while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt and contributing in the passing game. It’s safe to say that his pre-draft profile has held up in the NFL, from the excellent yards per rush to his durability concerns.
At 5’9″ and 208lbs, Jones carries a low frame that allows him to run between the tackles and to be patient following his blockers.
While you can see the lack of elite top-end speed in the play below, Jones more than makes up for it with a burst that gets him into the secondary in the blink of an eye.
On top of being an excellent runner, Jones shows a good feel for the passing game–especially on screens. Jones is under control and makes the proper cut to follow his blocking.
Finally, considering the quarterback that Jones gets to play with, this last clip may be the most mouth-watering yet. Jones beats his man and looks like a natural receiver downfield. An increased pass game role would only increase the upside that Jones possesses.
Overall, Jones’s skill and athleticism coming out of college have absolutely translated into the NFL, and the burst that allowed him to average more than seven yards per carry at UTEP has been a big factor in his 5.5 yards per rush at the pro level.
New Coaching and Projected Usage
It’s hard to take much from new head coach Matt Lafleur‘s brief two-year stint as an NFL coordinator when projecting Jones’s usage going forward. LaFleur was the offensive coordinator for the Rams in 2017 with head coach Sean McVay functioning as the play-caller, so it’s hard to use too much of that information when assessing LaFleur. Last year, LaFleur coordinated a Titans team that alternated between an injured Marcus Mariota and a healthy Blaine Gabbert. In the backfield, LaFleur was presented with two running backs whose styles couldn’t be more different in Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. This led to a pretty obvious splitting up of duties with Henry taking early-down and goalline work while Lewis was more involved in the pass game. Taking LaFleur’s tendencies from 2018 to project forward onto an Aaron Rodgers led offense feels like a mistake.
One thing that seems fairly clear, however, is that the Packers needed a change on offense. McCarthy’s play-calling felt stale and often relied on Rodgers making superhuman plays. This pattern seemed to lead Rodgers to bad habits. There are few excuses for a Rodgers led offense to finish 15th in the NFL in points scored, so an improvement to the offense seems inevitable. It would lead to more scoring opportunities for Jones, as well as more clock-killing opportunities late in games.
The key to Jones’s outlook for the 2019 season will be how much rushing volume the new coaching staff will give him. Looking back at Jones’s career thus far, he has received more than ten carries in just 12 of his 24 games. In those 12 games, Jones has 12 total touchdowns and has averaged 17.7 PPR points per game. That per-game average would have placed him as the RB9 in the league last year, just ahead of Joe Mixon–who typically goes as the RB8 or RB9 in drafts this year. Jones even has room for growth in this sample of games as he has never been given 20 carries in a single game. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see increased growth in the passing game as Jones has only averaged a little more than three targets a game in this 12 game sample.
Jones would be hard-pressed to find himself in a better situation for a fantasy running back. He gets to run behind the eighth-best offensive line in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Playing with Rodgers pairs him with a top 10 quarterback in the league by any ranking, and Rodgers is typically considered to be among the top five players at his position. Wide receiver Davante Adams is an elite option in the passing game, and he should help to take attention away from the running game. The Packers have also bolstered their defense through both free agency and the draft, notably drafting pass rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage in the first round. The Packers defense is creeping up toward the top 10 defenses of 2019 and coupled with a top ten offensive line, quarterback, and wide receiver, Jones is surrounded by talent that can help give him plenty of opportunities to put games away in the fourth quarter. With fairly mediocre competition for touches in the backfield, Jones is set up perfectly for the upcoming season.
ADP and Rankings
Jones has been coming off the board as the 14th running back in PPR leagues so far, and he has been lasting into the third round in many leagues. His price has been steadily rising, however, as owners latch onto his breakout potential in this offense. I originally ranked Jones as the 14th running back in PPR leagues, which put me right in line with the industry consensus. After this deep dive, I’m inclined to move Jones up above Dalvin Cook and Damien Williams at the top of the third tier. With Jones’s biggest concern being health, I think it’s fair to place him above Cook, who represents a greater injury risk and plays on a worse offense. As for Williams, he hasn’t topped 50 carries in a season; counting on him to last a full season seems just as risky as counting on Jones. Williams may be able to top Jones due to the explosiveness of the Chiefs offense, but I think Jones is the superior talent.
Moving Jones any higher than RB12 will be a matter of the health and availability of the players ahead of him. A prolonged Melvin Gordon holdout would cause him to freefall down the rankings, and continued negative reports on Todd Gurley could cause a drop for the former RB1 overall as well. For now, I’ll rank Jones as the twelfth best running back in drafts, but he could rise up to tenth with some negative news from Gordon and Gurley. I’ll be targeting Jones in all drafts due to his breakout potential. Grabbing him in the third round to pair with an elite running back and an elite wide receiver will continue to be my dream scenario in drafts during the upcoming weeks. Jones has already shown elite efficiency and athleticism. Now he just needs his coaching staff to get out of the way.
Featured image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)