GREEN BAY – The jersey was hanging in Aaron Jones’ locker. Helmet and pads, too. All week, the Green Bay Packers' rookie running back had taken scout-team reps, a sign he wasn’t going to play.
But Jones had never done this before.
He didn’t know how the inactive list worked. So when Jones entered the Packers' locker room at Lambeau Field hours before kickoff of the regular-season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, and his freshly pressed jersey was waiting for him, Jones had a flicker of hope.
“You think you’re going to suit up,” Jones said, “and then they’ll come ask you, ‘What do you want to wear?’ You might see a little bench access pass.”
Jones, a 5-9, 208-pound bundle of “yes, sirs” and proper manners, doesn’t deny he was “upset” when he found out he was inactive before his first NFL game. It was the good kind of angry, he said. The kind any competitor would feel handed such a slight.
The fact the Packers kept Jones inactive against the Seahawks because they felt he didn’t provide enough special-teams value shows how far the rookie has come. No, Jones’ greatest value isn’t special teams.
“He’s hungry,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I enjoy seeing him run the ball. He’s got an extra gear that he can take it, and really take the top off on a run, which is nice. I enjoy getting him touches, and we’re going to keep doing our best any time we call on 33 (Jones).”
It’s important for Jones to touch the football if the Packers want to salvage their season. With Brett Hundley at quarterback in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers, Jones is possibly their best hope of staying afloat in their final nine games. But an increased role in the offense also could provide long-term benefits.
At some point, Rodgers is going to return. A good running back, something Jones has shown the potential to become, would be a wonderful welcome-back present.
“I want to make big plays,” Jones said. “I want to give our offense a spark in the run game.”
Jones appears poised to join a flood of talented, young running backs who recently entered the league, an influx reflected among the NFL’s rushing leaders.
Among the league’s top 10 rushers are Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt (first, 763 yards) and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette (sixth, 596), a pair of rookies. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott (third, 690), Chicago’s Jordan Howard (fourth, 662) and Baltimore’s Alex Collins (ninth, 478) rank among the NFL’s top 10 in their second seasons. The Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley (fifth, 627) and Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Gordon (seventh, 526) are third-year runners.
Jones’ slow start prevented him from approaching the top 10 at the season’s midway point. His 346 yards ranks 24th, though that’s after the Week 8 bye. Jones has flashed enough potential to suggest his ceiling is high.
In each of his two starts this season, Jones reached the 125-yard mark. Among the seven young tailbacks filling the NFL’s top 10 in rushing, only Gurley rushed for 125 yards in each of his first two career starts.
It’s a small sample size. A running back’s first two starts don’t make a career. For Jones, his most extensive playing time came against the Cowboys (15th in run defense) and New Orleans Saints (21st). As a backup, Jones combined for 90 yards on 26 carries (3.4-yard average) against Minnesota (fourth in run defense) and Chicago (12th).
But Jones didn’t get his first carry until the Packers’ fourth game. He was inactive in the opener, then used exclusively on special teams against the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals. Only after injuries to starter Ty Montgomery and backup Jamaal Williams against the Bears in September did the Packers give Jones a chance.
Since his first carry, Jones has averaged 86.5 yards per game, which would rank seventh in the NFL. If you extend his four-game sample size, Jones would be on track for 1,384 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first 16 games.
The Packers clearly were surprised at how fast Jones emerged, or else they wouldn’t have waited so long to make him their starter. But they weren’t alone. Even Jones admits he has ascended quicker than expected.
“I mean, that was my goal,” Jones said. “Any athlete should set goals, and set them high. But I didn’t think it would happen this quick.”
Who knows where Jones would be among league rankings if he were treated the same as fellow rookie Williams. Drafted one round earlier, Williams was tabbed the team’s top backup behind Montgomery early in camp. The Packers considered Williams a superior blocker, but Jones made more plays as a runner and receiver in the preseason.
It didn’t influence how the Packers viewed him entering the season. Jones could’ve had a clue he wasn’t going to be active against the Seahawks. He was on scout team entering his first game, and remained on scout team in Week 2.
“It always motivates you,” Jones said. “That should motivate any athlete. If you’re inactive, and you feel like you belong on the field, if that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will. So I took it out in practice. I wanted to give our defense the best look that I could, and show them that I belonged on the field.
“I prepare every week as if I’m playing, but I was getting reps with the scout team. So I was trying to show them, ‘Hey, I want to be up.’”
Now that he’s up, Aaron Jones doesn’t figure to be sent back down again.