It’s no secret that the running back position is one of the top three needs of the Pittsburgh Steelers entering free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, right up there with offensive line and quarterback.
According to Evan Massey of NFL Analysis Network, the Steelers are one of a handful of teams with serious interest in Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones, a pending unrestricted free agent. “Plenty of teams will have interest,” says Massey, but the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears and Steelers are the “teams to keep a close eye on.”
Many NFL observers consider Jones to be the top running back available in free agency, including Pro Football Focus.
Aaron Jones a Former Fifth-Round Pick
Aaron Jones was drafted by the Packers in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of UTEP, part of the same draft class that produced Steelers running back James Conner. But unlike Conner, who has regressed in the past two years, Jones has produced all along.
In 2019, he started all 16 games and rushed 236 times for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding 49 catches for 474 yards and three receiving TDs. In 2020 he earned Pro Bowl honors, rushing for a career-high 1,104 yards with nine rushing TDs, adding 47 receptions for 355 yards and two more touchdowns. Jones has rushed for an impressive 5.2 yards per carry over the course of his career, as compared to Conner’s 4.3 yards per carry average.
Of course, money could be a sticking point for the cap-strapped Steelers. There are reports that Jones, 27, has already rejected an offer from the Packers that would have made him one of the five highest paid running backs in the league. This after he earned $2,133,000 in salary in 2020.
But it’s not inconceivable that the Steelers could make a serious run at Jones, or another free agent running back, like Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks.
For one, the Steelers have relatively little money tied up in the running back position. Conner aside, the other tailbacks on the roster (Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr.) are all mid-round picks in the midst of their rookie contracts. All are scheduled to earn less than a million dollars in 2021. In fact, fullback Derek Watt ($1.75 million salary) is—by far—the most expensive running back on the team’s roster.
And while the Steelers will be in cap hell in 2021 regardless, the team has much more flexibility in the years ahead, in part because it has yet to allot any money to the quarterback position beyond this coming season. A free agent contract could be structured so that the bulk of the money comes in, say, the second and third years of the deal.
Will Aaron Jones Be as Productive Away from Green Bay?
An open question, though, is whether Jones can have the same success with another team that he has had with the Packers.
“Jones is one of the league’s best running backs, but like all backs, he is heavily dependent on his environment,” notes Pro Football Focus in the above-linked PFF article. “Jones has been running behind an impressive offensive line and catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, neither of which may be true with his next team.”
Even so, he figures to be a reasonable risk.
“Jones is a well-rounded threat at the position and a player with little in the way of weaknesses. He has also been kept relatively fresh by Green Bay’s use of a committee approach to their backfield, so should still have tread left on the tires,” concludes PFF.com.
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