GREEN BAY — Aaron Jones is headed to the NFL’s free agent market — unless the Green Bay Packers can get a long-term deal done with their star running back before he gets there.
The Packers opted not to place the franchise tag on Jones, with the 3 p.m. Tuesday deadline coming and going without the team restricting Jones’ ability to sign with another team.
That means Jones’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, will be able to start talking to free agent suitors next Monday, when the league’s negotiation period opens, and Jones will be free to sign with any team when the new league year starts next Wednesday.
The 26-year-old Jones, who entered the league as a fifth-round pick from Texas-El Paso in 2017, put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons the past two years and has been an indispensable part of coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, even as No. 2 back Jamaal Williams — himself a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent — shared time with Jones as the coaches tried to keep Jones fresh.
Despite missing two games with a calf injury last season, Jones set a career high for rushing yards (1,104) and matched a career best in yards per carry (5.5). Over the past two years, he’s averaged 266.5 offensive touches per season and played an average of 601 offensive snaps.
According to ESPN.com, Jones received multiple extension proposals from the Packers during the season, but he turned down those overtures because the deals lacked the guaranteed money Jones was seeking, despite containing average-per-year salaries that were commensurate with the NFL’s other highly compensated backs such as his 2017 draft classmates, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara. Jones later changed agents, hiring Rosenhaus to represent him.
The Packers were in a precarious position with Jones and the salary cap, standing roughly $12 million over the league’s set $180 million cap floor as of Tuesday morning. While the league and NFL Players Association haven’t reached an agreement on where the 2021 salary cap will fall, it will be significantly lower than the $198.2 million cap the league set in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Tagging Jones would have counted a little more than $8 million against the Packers’ cap, whereas a long-term deal would allow them to keep Jones while having him count far less against the cap in 2021.
Jones had his worst game of the year in the Packers’ season-ending NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl LV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field on Jan. 24, managing just 34 total yards on 10 touches, losing a costly fumble early in the third quarter and suffering a chest injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
Asked last week during a Zoom Q&A session with reporters about his willingness to use the franchise tag on a player after the organization hasn’t used the tag in more than a decade, general manager Brian Gutekunst replied: “We certainly could (use it). I think it’s something we’re working through. Again, it’s not a philosophical thing to avoid it. I do think there’s usually better ways to go about it, but certainly, as we get down the road here over the next week or so, if that becomes what is in the best interest of the Packers, I think we’ll do that. But at this point, we haven’t done that.”
And on Tuesday, they decided not to.
Using the franchise tag would have all but assured Jones’ return in 2021 — as long as he signed the tag and reported to camp — since any team signing him to an offer would have to give the Packers two first-round picks if Green Bay didn’t match that offer. The Packers also would have had the option of trading Jones to another team for less than the two first-round picks, allowing them to get something in return for a player who has scored 35 total touchdowns over the past two years, including playoffs.
Instead, if they cannot get a deal done with Jones before Monday, then the Packers will lose Jones and have to hope for a meaningful compensatory pick in 2022.
“Every situation is different. It is a tool that is out there for us to use if it makes sense for the football team,” Gutekunst had said last week. “Whether it’s the franchise tag, the transition tag or some of the other avenues for us to retain players, it’s always something that we’ll look at. And if that’s the best situation for us, then we’ll go ahead and use it if we need to.”
This isn’t the first time the Packers, who haven’t used their franchise tag since applying it to run-stuffing nose tackle Ryan Pickett before the 2010 season, have decided against tagging a player they valued. In 2014, then-GM Ted Thompson opted not to tag another Rosenhaus client, cornerback Sam Shields, but the two sides reached an accord on a four-year, $39 million deal just days after the franchise tag deadline.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Gutekunst said of the decision to use the tag. “Really, I think it’s a way to keep a player on your team that you maybe feel you’re not able to sign long-term. Again, we’ve tried to avoid that just because we think there’s better ways to go about it.”
If they can’t get a long-term deal done with Jones, the Packers could turn their attention to the unsung Williams.
Williams seemingly would be a more economical alternative to bringing back Jones at market price, but it appears Williams is set to test free agency, too. Williams never received an in-season offer from the Packers, according to one league source, and last month, he also changed agents, hiring Bardia Ghahremani.
Williams was certainly productive even while seeing less playing time than Jones over the past two seasons, averaging 727 yards from scrimmage and 4.5 touchdowns on 148 touches per year while averaging 395.5 offensive snaps over those two seasons.
Speaking late in the season, Jones had reiterated that he was hoping to stay in Green Bay. Whether that happens will be decided in the coming days.
“I said it before, where my heart is at,” Jones said in December. “I’m not worried about what’s going on in the future or any of that. I’m here to play football.”
No hike in ticket prices
The Packers announced general seating ticket prices for the 2021 season will remain flat, with per game prices the same as the 2020 season.
Photos: Packers’ 2020 season in pictures