June 18, 2024

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t mince words on Thursday when asked whether or not the team’s star running back, Aaron Jones, will spearhead the backfield next season.

Whatever heights the Packers ascend to—or the just-as-realistic lows into which they’ll descend—he expects the 29-year-old to be there, despite the speculation surrounding his future. The Packers essentially gutted the savvy portion of their roster last off-season, allowing their most experienced faces—from starters to role players alike—to walk out the door, from Allen Lazard, Adrian Amos and Marcedes Lewis to Aaron Rodgers, who was traded to the New York Jets after a 15-year stint as the team’s signal caller.

Packers: 7 Takeaways From Brian Gutekunst's Season-Ending Press Conference

Even amid a youth movement, there weren’t any known plans to move on from Jones, and perhaps rightfully so. Despite being the third-oldest player on the roster behind Preston Smith (31) and De’Vondre Campbell (30), Jones’ best football may be ahead of him—especially if the momentum with which he closed out the 2023 campaign carries over into next season.

Aaron Jones celebrates a first-down run against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Getty)

“Yeah, absolutely, we’d love to have Aaron Jones back, but we’re still kind of putting those things together as far as how we’re going to move forward,” said Gutekunst, “he was such a difference-maker when he was out there this year. The offense was able to move, the way he—he changed a lot of the way we operated when he was in there and when he was healthy.”

The Packers may have to rework Jones’ contract to comply with their salary cap, but that’s not exactly uncharted territory for them. They’ve revisited the structure of his deal multiple times already, most recently last off-season when they slashed his salary by roughly five million dollars.

Undersized at 5’9″ and 208 pounds, keeping Jones upright has always been at the forefront of the Packers’ priorities, even when Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur’s predecessor, was the head coach. His usage was somewhat limited in favor of Jamaal Williams, who was snagged off the board by the Packers 48 spots ahead of Jones in 2017.

There are times when that has even been the case a handful of years later. The Packers have allocated a bulk of Jones’ touches to AJ Dillon, a 2020 second-round pick from Boston College—deciding whether that’s due to draft status or a legitimate belief that an infusion of Dillon’s 247-pound frame was needed is a fool’s errand, but more often than not, the offense didn’t operate at a similar pace as it did with Jones. However, to keep Jones fresh, it was necessary.

Jones missed multiple games with a hamstring injury that he suffered in the Sept. 10 season-opening win over the Chicago Bears. During a 35-yard catch-and-run, he pulled up and grabbed the back of his thigh as he crossed into the end zone. Between that game and the Oct. 22 loss to the Denver Broncos, he missed three games and registered just six touches in his lone appearance against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 28.

His return was short-lived. Jones re-entered the lineup for five games before spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee—his fifth such injury.

“For us, it’s finding a way to keep him out there and keep him healthy,” Gutekunst said. “Not only on the field, and you guys know this—hes’ such an influential leader in our locker room. He’s really the heartbeat of our team. That’s kind of the anticipation is that he’ll be back.”

Even if there was some skepticism about Jones returning—and going against Gutekunst’s desire to sculpt a young roster across the board—his tear to end the season may have been enough to put that apprehension to bed. Between a Christmas Eve win over the Carolina Panthers and the Divisional Round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Jones registered five straight 100-yard performances—the longest streak in franchise history. That includes 118 yards—and 131 from scrimmage—against the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round, punctuating that performance by scoring three times en route to a complete throttling against the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

Aaron Jones catching a two-point conversion against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. (Photo: Getty)

For his career, Jones has faced off against the Cowboys on four separate occasions, accumulating 603 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns. He’s rushed for over 100 yards and averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry in all four contests. Those three recent touchdowns catapulted Jones past Edgar Bennett for the most post-season rushing scores in franchise history.

With his eighth season on the horizon, Jones will turn 30 in December, just before the Packers are presumed to go on another playoff run. Just as the greats before him have experienced, the well-documented wall is looming; there will come a time when Jones isn’t going to move as quickly or hit particular holes with the same explosiveness as he’s done in years past. If that time is near, Jones has done nothing but provide evidence to the contrary, and considering he’s the engine that makes the Packers’ offense hum—so much so that they were playing like the best unit in the league for the last two months of the season—they better hope that continues to be the case.

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