It's no secret the Green Bay Packers are in "win now" mode. In each of the past two seasons, the Packers have won 13 games and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Last year, they entered the postseason as the conference's top seed.
Green Bay came up short of the Super Bowl in those seasons, but the team isn't far off. With a 37-year-old quarterback, though, the franchise's championship window won't stay open forever. The Pack can't afford to take any steps backward.
If they are going to make another deep playoff run in 2021, general manager Brian Gutekunst needs to do everything in his power to keep the team's key contributors in Titletown.
And where running back Aaron Jones is concerned, the easiest (and potentially most cost-effective) way to do so is by availing themselves of the recently opened window to slap the franchise tag on the 26-year-old.
Over the past two seasons, Jones has been as good as any running back in the NFL. In each of those campaigns, he surpassed 1,400 total yards, rushed for over 1,000 yards, topped 4.5 yards per carry, caught over 45 passes and scored double-digit touchdowns. In 2020, Jones averaged 5.5 yards a carry for the third time in four years and ran for a career-best 1,104 yards.
By any measure, he is an elite talent at his position. And as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on The Rich Eisen Show in September (h/t Bill Huber of Packer Central), Jones is an important part of a Packers offense that ranked fifth in the league last season:
"He has been really, really special to watch. There are some guys who you just can't help but pull for because they do things the right way, and Jonesy is one of those guys. He is one of the greatest teammates that I've had in 16 years. He is the most respectful teammate, possibly, that we've ever had. ... He's such a great kid."
In a vacuum, bringing back Jones in 2021 would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the NFL isn't a vacuum, and the past year's developments don't make personnel decisions any easier.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of revenue brought about by it, for the first time in recent memory, the salary cap is expected to decrease in 2021. That puts quite a few NFL teams in a pickle. While the Packers aren't as bad off as teams like the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, they are still, per Over the Cap, about $11.5 million over the projected salary cap.
That is not ideal.
Jones also isn't the only starter on Green Bay's roster set to hit the open market. Center Corey Linsley is about to become a free agent, as are sub-package cornerback Kevin King and reserve running back Jamaal Williams.
Again, not ideal.
With a talented young back on the roster in second-year pro AJ Dillon (a second-round pick of the Packers in 2020), some have postulated that the wise move is to turn the page in the backfield and let Jones move on—especially since Spotrac estimates his next contract could fetch $14.6 million a season.
But as ESPN's Rob Demovsky wrote in January, the Packers offered to make Jones one of the five highest-paid backs in the league in terms of average annual salary. He rejected that offer because of a lack of guaranteed cash (the only kind that matters in NFL contracts), but it demonstrates a desire by the team to keep him around.
That leads us to Gutekunst's not-so-secret weapon...the franchise tag.
While tagging Jones wouldn't be cheap, it's also not as expensive as many believe. The decrease in the salary cap for 2021 has a silver lining: Franchise-tag amounts will also come down. Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap estimates the tag for running backs will sit just over $8 million.
If the Packers could ink Jones to a multiyear deal that averaged $8 million a season, then it would already be signed, sealed and delivered. That tag for running backs is also $5.6 million less than the $13.6 million it would cost to tag Linsley.
Yes, the Packers have a young running back waiting in the wings who showed flashes as a rookie. Dillon averaged 5.3 yards per carry and gashed the Tennessee Titans for 124 yards on 21 carries in Week 16.
But those 21 carries against the Titans were almost half of Dillon's workload for the year. And in four collegiate and professional seasons at Boston College and in Green Bay, he has caught all of 23 passes.
Dillon has talent. But the presumption that he can slot behind Rodgers and the Packers won't miss a beat offensively pushes the bounds of optimism.
This Packers team can't afford a step back. Not if it wants to hang with the NFC's elite.
Finding the money against the salary cap won't be easy, but it's not impossible. Teams restructure big contracts every year to clear cap space, and given how many teams are in the red this year, we're about to see an unprecedented flurry of such moves.
Green Bay has restructured tackle David Bakhtiari's contract. Rodgers is expected to follow. Guys like edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith and guard Billy Turner could join them. An extension for star wideout Davante Adams, who carries a cap hit of $16.8 million in 2021, could offer relief in the short term.
The Packers can also still trim some fat from the proverbial bone. Green Bay has cut underperforming veterans like inside linebacker Christian Kirksey and tackle Rick Wagner. Releasing edge-rusher Preston Smith (as a post-June 1 cut) would clear $12 million from the books for 2021.
The money can be found, both to tag Jones and get Linsley re-upped. And the whole $8 million hit for Jones wouldn't have to stay on the books either—inking him to a more cap-friendly (in the short term) extension after he's tagged is an option as well.
Using the franchise tag on Jones would be out of character for the Packers, in that using the tag on anyone would be out of character for the Packers. Per OTC's Hardik Sanghavi, only one team in the league hasn't tagged a single player since 2011:
If ever there was a time to break that streak, this is it. Among the skill-position weapons at Rodgers' disposal, only Adams is more important to his (and the team's) offensive success than Jones. The team is in a legitimate position to make a run at Los Angeles and Super Bowl LVI. And $8 million and change is reasonable for a running back of Jones' caliber.
Gutekunst has until March 9 to play the salary-cap shell game and free up the cash to keep the team's star runner in green and gold. Then it will be time to play a new game.
Tag. You're it.