Ranking the 5 Most Likely Landing Spots for Aaron Jones in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2020

Ranking the 5 Most Likely Landing Spots for Aaron Jones in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones is one of the premier members of 2021 free agency and arguably the top player hitting the market at his position. 

    Jones, a fifth-round pick in 2017, has had another stellar season over nine appearances, and some might even suggest he's underutilized. He's rushed for 624 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry a year removed from 1,084 yards (4.6 YPC) and a league-best 16 rushing touchdowns over 16 games. 

    A complete back, Jones has also caught 33 or more passes in both seasons (and counting). Still, Jones has lost carries to Jamaal Williams and rookie second-rounder AJ Dillon, with Green Bay potentially ready to lose Jones. 

    And the market for Jones should be hot, conversations about paying running backs aside. Here's a look at teams with plenty of projected salary-cap space (via Spotrac) that should have an interest based on schematic fit, need and long-term plans.

5. New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Is Jones the running back to finally end Bill Belichick's impossible-to-predict running back carousel? 

    Maybe not, but the New England Patriots' signing of Cam Newton wasn't always a guarantee, either. 

    Just one name has carried the ball more than 100 times for the Patriots through 11 games (Damien Harris), and Newton himself has 92 carries over that span. The presence of an elite, versatile back changes the complexion of an offense that has sputtered to a 5-6 record, to say the least. 

    The Patriots do have some big holes to fill across the roster to mask the fact that Tom Brady is gone. But sitting with the fourth-highest cap total at roughly $69 million gives them the flexibility to get more explosive around a quarterback position that is a question mark after the season.

4. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers smartly said no thanks on the Melvin Gordon III sweepstakes (he's in Denver averaging 4.1 yards per carry) but could always use some of the ample available cap space to upgrade the roster around breakout rookie passer Justin Herbert. 

    Take, for example, the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to give Joe Mixon a big extension behind Joe Burrow. The extra cap space that comes with a signal-caller on a rookie deal means luxurious moves that surround him with as much talent as possible. 

    And the Chargers have plenty of room thanks to $33.4 million in projected cap space, a top-10 mark. While Austin Ekeler is still one of the most versatile weapons in football at the running back position, he's only suited up for five games this season as a result of a torn hamstring. 

    In the arms race that is the AFC West, Jones' arrival would mean a workhorse-type back in the backfield while Ekeler creates mismatches by lining up elsewhere. More unpredictability from the offense only makes things easier for Herbert as he develops, too.

3. Washington Football Team

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    The Washington Football Team intended to make Derrius Guice the long-term lead back to pair with second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins before cutting him in August

    Fast-forward to now, and in that role is 2020 third-round pick Antonio Gibson, who's responded with 645 yards and 11 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry. 

    But in the interest of not only being more competitive but also keeping Gibson fresher for the long haul, Washington's pursuit of Jones on the open market makes plenty of sense. The organization might require a grace period as it searches for a quarterback to new head coach Ron Rivera's liking, and it happens to be one of just five teams with projected cap space north of $50 million next offseason. 

    As an aside, the laughable NFC East race could easily continue into 2021, so adding some versatile firepower in Jones with the excess cap space could translate to a big boost in Washington's quest to end a playoff drought that is approaching five years.

2. New York Jets

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Are the New York Jets ready to pay up for another running back after the Le'Veon Bell experiment? 

    While some of it will hinge on what happens with the Adam Gase-led coaching staff, it's not hard to see the Jets liking the idea. Veteran Frank Gore has managed all of 3.7 yards per carry over 141 attempts and rookie fourth-rounder La'Mical Perine hasn't fared much better with the same average over 55 totes. 

    The Jets have plenty of cash to throw at the problem to take pressure off a young passer in Sam Darnold, as the organization sits second in projected cap space at $82.9 million. 

    There are bigger systemic issues for the Jets, including the direction of the franchise with a high draft pick and a potential coaching change looming. But paying Jones, who can undoubtedly create more behind New York's current offensive line than the backs on the roster right now, is one way to get more competitive immediately and provide a crutch for a potential franchise signal-caller who's still finding his way.

1. Miami Dolphins

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Teams with high-profile quarterbacks have some extra motivation to go out and pay up big for versatile star running backs like Jones. 

    And it sure doesn't hurt that the rookie wage scale means they have some extra cap wiggle room. 

    So goes the outlook for the rebuilding Miami Dolphins with Tua Tagovailoa in the fold. The rookie passer has only appeared in five games, yet the signs of the long-term future have been blatant. 

    The running game...not so much, as no Dolphins rusher with more than 40 attempts this year has even averaged four yards per carry. Given the otherwise superb pace of the rebuild under Brian Flores, there's plenty of reason to throw some of that roughly $36 million in projected cap space at a top-tier player like Jones. 

    When the task is insulating a potential franchise passer with an injury history like Tagovailoa (he suffered a dislocated hip during his final season at Alabama), Jones looks like a stellar investment. Jones would still be playing for a contender, too, especially with the way the Dolphins look in a shifting AFC East.