Publicly, Packers coach Matt LaFleur remains cautious, non-committal and altogether unemotional about the potential return on Thursday night of his two best players. It’s a wise policy—a coach does not want to show too much of his hand, to his opponents or to his players.
But privately, maybe LaFleur is jumping for joy. The Packers have played 12 quarters to date and LaFleur has had receiver Christian Watson, his fastest player and best deep threat, for zero of them. He’s had running back Aaron Jones, arguably his best player, for three.
ESPN reporter Dan Graziano wrote on Wednesday that both Jones and Watson worked out “extensively” before the Packers played the Saints on Sunday, and that Watson—out for nearly a month with a hamstring injury—was nearly a go at game time. He also quoted LaFleur calling the combo of Jones (also out with a hamstring injury) and Watson “home run hitters.”
“When I spoke to Packers coach Matt LaFleur over the weekend, he said getting Watson back would be massive, since he’s their fastest player, and he joins Jones as the team’s two ‘home-run hitters’ on offense,” Graziano wrote in his column with Jeremy Fowler. “Watson has yet to play this season, but it says something for his prospects as a deep threat that, even without him, Jordan Love leads the league in air yards per pass attempt at 10.1.”
Matt LaFleur Publicly Cautious on Watson & Jones
LaFleur, as we mentioned, was much more measured in his comments about Watson and Jones when meeting with the media. He did not commit to both players being on the field, but it was notable that Watson was a limited participant in practice on Tuesday after sitting on Monday. Jones was limited on both days.
LaFleur said Watson still had a ways to go before he could say for sure he’d play.
“He’s got to go through the process, I would say, before anything’s for certain,” LaFleur said, via the team’s website. “We’d love to have him out there. If he gets cleared, he’ll be able to go.”
And when talking about Jones, LaFleur said the team will keep in mind the bigger picture.
“I don’t want to sacrifice one game for a longer period of time. I don’t think anybody does,” LaFleur said in his Tuesday press conference. “Certainly, we all want him out there. We know how valuable (Jones) is to our football team in so many aspects, whether he’s got the ball or not. But we want to make sure he’s able to protect himself and not going to be at further risk for injury.”
Christian Watson, Aaron Jones Among NFL’s Fastest
But LaFleur’s “home-run” designation for Watson and Jones makes some sense. Without those two, the Packers must be methodical with the ball.
In three games this year, Jordan Love has thrown deep balls—20 yards or more—16 times, and completed only three of them, for a subpar grade of 52.9, per Pro Football Focus. Some of those throws were Love’s fault, but some of the issue with the Green Bay deep game is just a matter of not having Watson, among the fastest players in the NFL, on the field.
The same goes for Jones and his ability to take a modest play and turn it into a monster. He did that against Chicago with a 35-yard game-breaking touchdown in Week 1 (the one on which he hurt his hamstring), which started as a short pass from Love. According to Next Gen Stats, Jones hit a top speed of 21.48 miles per hour on that play, the fastest of any player in the NFC this season.
Home run, indeed.