clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Evolution of Aaron Jones and the Emergence of a Packers Superstar

Green Bay’s other Aaron has long been overlooked because of his size. But he’s been a revelation in his first season under Matt LaFleur—and he may be the key to the Packers’ playoff success.

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Aaron Jones rarely feels short, but his teammates have no trouble reminding him. There’s a picture of Jones, Montravius Adams, and Kenny Clark hanging on his fridge. It was taken last Halloween. Jones is standing in the middle—a 5-foot-9 Stay Puft Marshmallow Man flanked by two colossal, deranged clowns. “You can’t see any of our faces,” Jones says, “and it looks like I’m a little kid. That’s when you kinda notice.” Walking through a mall, Jones looks like a typical 25-year-old shopping for shoes. Walking onto the field … that’s a different story. “When I get into that huddle and I’ve got [David] Bakhtiari to the left of me and I’ve got either Marcedes [Lewis] or Jimmy [Graham] to the right of me, I’m like, ‘Man,’” Jones says.

Before this season, Jones had been undersized and overlooked. He was a three-star recruit coming out of Burges High School in El Paso, Texas, and got just two Division I offers, from New Mexico State and UTEP, where he eventually signed. He gained more than 4,000 yards and finished his college career as the Miners’ all-time leading rusher, but even with that production, concerns about his stature and competition level dropped Jones to the fifth round of the 2017 draft. That draft status seemed to inform his usage as a rookie; despite averaging 5.5 yards per carry that season, Jones ran the ball just 81 times.

A lot of smaller running backs survive on quickness, shiftiness in space, or receiving talent. At 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds, Jones is almost the exact same size as Texans pass catcher Duke Johnson. And his height ranks in the 18th percentile of backs who’ve attended the combine in the past two decades. But even though Jones stands an inch shorter than Saints star Alvin Kamara, he will tell you: “I don’t play like a smaller back.” In conversations about Jones’s running style, the same word comes up constantly: slashing. When Jones decides it’s time to hit the gas, he can tear defenses to ribbons—and rip out their hearts in the process. “When Aaron’s on his day, it’s almost unfair,” Packers left tackle Bakhtiari says. “His ability to hit the hole so fast—when he’s coming, he may not be running guys over, but he’s just splitting everything.”

As a rookie in 2017, Jones finished second in rushing DVOA among players with less than 100 carries. Last season, he led the league in yards per rush (5.5) and finished sixth in Football Outsiders’ success rate. “Just because he’s a smaller back, people think he’s not strong,” says teammate Jamaal Williams. “Aaron runs through a lot of tackles. Even when you have him in the backfield, he’s always getting [yards].”

It seemed like every time Jones touched the ball, he delivered a jolt to the Green Bay offense. Those moments left everyone from Packers fans to fantasy geeks to the team’s legendary quarterback clamoring for more. And they weren’t alone. “You want to be out there with your team, and you want to produce and help in those key, money situations,” Jones says. “And when you’re not, it brings you down a little bit. You’re like, ‘Man, I want to be out there. I know I can help.’ When you’re not getting those opportunities, it’s tough.”

This season, that’s all changed. The arrival of first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and a new offensive system has helped transform Jones from an efficiency maven into a full-blown superstar. He finished the regular season with 126 more touches than in 2018, and he’s used that extra work to pile up 1,558 yards from scrimmage (eighth in the NFL) and a league-leading 19 total touchdowns. He’s also brought his best game in the Packers’ biggest moments. In Week 5, he gashed the Cowboys for 182 total yards and four rushing touchdowns. Three weeks later, he scorched the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football for 226 total yards and a pair of receiving touchdowns. And with the NFC North title and a playoff bye hanging in the balance, he buried the Vikings in Week 16 with 154 rushing yards and two touchdowns—including a 56-yard dagger late in the fourth quarter. In Green Bay’s final four games, Aaron Rodgers averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt; the Packers won all four anyway, thanks to an incredible month from their newest star. Jones averaged 136.5 yards from scrimmage per game over that stretch, and he carried the ball 23 and 25 times, respectively, in the Packers’ final two outings—the two highest totals of his career.

As the Packers’ passing game has struggled, the small back with the big numbers may be Green Bay’s best hope for a deep playoff run. It’s a chance that he and those around him have been waiting for. “At the end of the day, we always say, ‘When that opportunity comes, then it’s time to show everybody,’” says Jones’s father, Alvin Jones Sr. “That’s what he’s doing right now.”

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
Aaron Jones
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

One Christmas when Jones was in high school, his parents bought him a DVD of his favorite movie: The 6th Man. Even in the age of streaming, Jones still brings a portable DVD player on the road to watch it from time to time. It’s a silly yet sweet story: Brothers Kenny and Antoine Tyler (played by Marlon Wayans and Kadeem Hardison, respectively) are basketball stars at the University of Washington. During a game, Antoine has a heart attack on the court, and later dies. Eventually, his ghost comes back and starts helping the Huskies win games. Think Angels in the Outfield, but with basketball and some typical Wayans brothers antics.

Jones has a twin brother, Alvin, and as basketball-loving kids, the premise grabbed them. “Even though one of them dies, he’s still there with him,” Jones says. “And that’s how I feel. My brother is always there.” In the movie, the two brothers have a saying: A and K, all the way. For Aaron and Alvin, that quickly became A and A, all the way—a mantra their mom would repeat to them before their own games tipped off.

The Jones brothers were inseparable growing up. They played video games—Aaron was more easily irritated by Madden losses—watched movies, and played sports. As athletes, Alvin—who’s an inch taller than his brother and spent part of this season as a linebacker for the Ravens before heading to IR—was more physical, while Aaron thrived on finesse. Both of Aaron’s parents are retired Army veterans, and the nomadic life of military kids only brought the brothers closer together. From their birthplace in Savannah, Georgia, to stops in Germany, Virginia, and Kentucky, they were rarely apart. “I didn’t ever have to really worry about making new friends,” Alvin says. “Because I always had Aaron.”

When the boys were in second grade, their teacher stopped class early one Tuesday morning and wheeled a TV to the front of the room. A pair of planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and though Aaron and Alvin were too young to fully grasp the gravity of what they were watching, that day brought changes for the Joneses and many military families. Both Alvin Sr. and his wife, Vurgess, were eventually deployed to Iraq, and their children (the twins and their older sister, Chelsirae) were sent to live with an aunt in Virginia. “It did just kind of suck,” Alvin says of moving in with relatives. “I hated it.” Along with worries about their parents’ absence and fears about their safety, the boys also had quibbles that were far more fitting for second graders. Aaron had a hard time getting used to the first school uniform he’d had to wear in his life. The pants were an ugly blue, and quickly got “dingy and faded,” as Aaron puts it. He wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure, either. “Aaron, he couldn’t have been more than like 8 or 9,” Alvin says. “And he comes to my teacher and was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t wear these ashy-ass pants.’”

Aaron still remembers the day his father returned from overseas. He pulled the boys out of school, and they spent the entire day watching movies. Family has always been a foundation for Aaron, and his relationship with Alvin is at the heart of it. “One of the things I’ve tried to teach them is that you’re always there for each other, always,” Jones Sr. says. “No matter what. No matter what situation, no matter what circumstances, no matter when you grow older and you eventually get married, and you have your families or whatever. … There’s not going to be a relationship that you have like the one that you have with your twin brother.”

Coming out of high school, UTEP was one of the only colleges willing to offer scholarships to both Aaron and Alvin. So they decided to stay in their hometown—and stay together. “It’s just a bond that you can’t explain,” Jones says. “We’re inseparable. He changes with you. Everything is better.” Jones rushed for 1,773 yards and 17 touchdowns—while averaging 7.7 yards per carry—during his final season with the Miners in 2016. He gained more than 200 yards on the ground in three of UTEP’s final four games, and rushed for 301 in their last. As he conferred with his family and considered his prospects after the season, the group decided he had nothing to gain by coming back to school. “I told him to go,” Alvin says. “Because you never know what’s going to happen. You put up the film. If you are going to come back to UTEP next year and do the same thing you did this year, it’s pointless.” Both brothers knew it was the right decision, but that didn’t make their goodbyes any easier. Before leaving school, Aaron suggested that he and his brother get matching tattoos. By the end of that week, both had six words inked high on their backs: A and A All the Way.

UTEP Miners v Arkansas Razorbacks
Aaron Jones
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The day that Jones left for Packers OTAs in May 2017, his entire family saw him off from the El Paso airport. There were tears as they gathered at the curb—mostly from his mother. But the thought of separating was also daunting for both brothers. Jones had never spent more than a couple of days apart from Alvin in 22 years.

Loneliness crept in during those first few months away. After moving out of the dorm he stayed in during training camp and back into a hotel, Jones was without a roommate for the first time in his life. “It’s so quiet,” Jones says. “You never notice until you don’t have anybody to talk to. I’ve always had somebody there. Even if it’s just something stupid or a joke, or you might be scrolling Twitter and say, ‘Did you see this?’ You’ve always had somebody there, and then you kinda realize [you don’t].”

Fall in Wisconsin also seemed dreary after nearly a decade in west Texas. Daylight had already come and gone by the time Jones drove home most nights, and he’d arrive home to nothing but silence and darkness. “I’d kinda get this sense of, ‘There’s nobody here,’” Jones says. “It’s pitch black. It’s kinda gray here in Green Bay, so it’s already dark when you get home. And you’re like, ‘Man, what is going on?’ So I just started going to Jamaal’s.”

Jones had met Williams months earlier. They shared an agent, and Williams had roomed with Jones in an airport hotel during OTAs and in dorms during training camp. The pair got along immediately, but their friendship grew that fall. Rather than watch film and pore over the Packers’ dense playbook alone, Jones would walk to Williams’s apartment—located in the same complex as his—and do his work there. It wasn’t rare to find one of them curled on the other’s couch after a late-night study session. “It helped our rookie year, I feel like,” Jones says. “You realize, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this by yourself?’”

Three years later, they still live a stone’s throw from one another. Knocking is no longer necessary; they know each other’s door codes. They also still spend hours together each week, playing video games or watching movies. “He has over 60 games downloaded,” Jones says. “We’ll be playing something, and I don’t even know what it is.” The pair recently binged all three John Wick movies, and though Williams has tried to convince Jones to start watching anime, it’s yet to take hold. Jones says that three seasons with Williams has brought him out of his shell. “I’ve always had rhythm, but I didn’t always feel comfortable dancing in front of people. I’d kinda just sit back and bob my head,” Jones says. Now, he’ll see clips of himself mugging for a TV camera and wonder what the hell happened. “He think he got moves now,” Williams says.

Their connection is part of the reason that Jones never got overly frustrated when each back was given an equal share of the team’s snaps under former head coach Mike McCarthy. The Packers threw the ball at the highest rate in the NFL last season (about 68 percent of their plays), and even Jones will admit that Williams was the superior pass protector. Yet even as Jones tried to take his limited playing time in stride, those around him were free to vent. “If someone says you can’t do something, and you’re never given the opportunity to do it, how can you say you can’t do it?” Alvin Jones Sr. says. “I told [a local reporter], ‘How can you say he can’t catch the ball when they don’t throw him the ball?’”

Despite solid rushing efficiency, the Packers offense lagged through the first three months of the 2018 season, and after a 4-7-1 start, McCarthy was fired. In January, Green Bay hired LaFleur, who has an extensive history of featuring multiple running backs. Not long after he arrived, LaFleur called both Jones and Williams and laid out his philosophy toward the position. They liked what they heard. “As a running back, you hear that and kind of get excited,” Jones says. “Like, OK! He starts telling you, ‘Hey, watch [Titans running back] Dion Lewis. You see him in the slot. You see him out there catching the ball.’ You start smiling, like, ‘OK, I’m gonna get the chance to be the player I know I can be.’”

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys
Aaron Jones
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Packers’ trip to Dallas this season was a special occasion for Jones and his family. His parents attend every one of his games—home and away—but this time, Alvin was also in the stands. Each week, Alvin Sr. gives his son a short pep talk in the moments before a game. He asks to see his son’s eyes, and then tells him that he’s proud of him. “Before that game, my dad was just saying, ‘I can see it in your eyes,’” Aaron says. “I didn’t know what he was saying. I was just like, ‘Yes, sir.’” Jones scored all four of the Packers’ touchdowns that afternoon in a 34-24 win.

That type of performance wasn’t an aberration this season. Jones has regularly demolished defenses in ways that he never could have during his first two seasons. Packers running backs coach Ben Sirmans has worked with Jones since his rookie year, and when the new members of LaFleur’s staff inquired this spring about how best to use him, Sirmans said he was ready for more work as a runner and a receiver. “I always felt like, as Aaron started to play a lot more for us, he had the diversity to do all those things,” Sirmans says. “I just said I didn’t think there would be very many limitations—but obviously they had to see for themselves.”

Jones missed the early part of training camp with a lingering hamstring injury, so first-year offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had to wait a bit to see him at full speed. And Hackett wasn’t sure what to expect. “He’s not the biggest guy,” Hackett says. “So you sit there and you say, ‘What kind of player is this guy gonna be?’” Without Jones or Williams (who was also nursing an injury) on the field early in camp, Green Bay’s new offense looked stuck in slow motion. “[The day he came back] it was a dramatic change of burst and speed,” Hackett says. “That infusion … we’re a brand-new staff trying to figure things out, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Oh! OK! I’m good with this!’”

Hackett had already heard about Jones’s talents as a runner; the mystery surrounded what their small but powerful back could provide in the passing game. That became apparent quickly. By the end of his first training camp practice, Jones was hauling in deep passes. Then came pass protection, an area that supposedly kept Jones off the field in previous years. “He went in there and was stoning people,” Hackett says. “It was like, ‘OK, where’s the deficiency?’ That’s what stood out: his ability to be an all-around, dynamic football player. No matter how he gets the ball, or where he is on the field, he can score. It kind of unlocked this whole world for us that, I don’t know if we really knew about coming in.”

With this sort of versatile weapon now at their disposal, LaFleur and his staff slowly started adding layers to their Jones-specific menu of plays. The transition to LaFleur’s offense meant moving from more gap-scheme runs to a zone-based approach, which Jones picked up quickly. The running game had been efficient under McCarthy, but players could sense it wasn’t a priority. Under LaFleur—who’d been raised in the Kubiak-Shanahan system—zone running and the play-action concepts that come with it became ingrained in the Packers’ DNA. For the first time in Jones’s career, coaches stressed the details of the ground game in the same way they emphasized the passing game. “It’s more of an attack,” Bakhtiari says. “This is the most I’ve ever felt like I could ever just pin my ears back and go. And that goes for everybody.”

As Jones showed off his range in the run game, LaFleur’s staff also expanded his role as a receiver. What started as a collection of screens and checkdowns soon grew to include more detailed routes out of the backfield. Not long after that, the coaches were asking Jones to line up in the slot and run slants and Omaha (quick-out) routes. Each week, they’d add another branch to Jones’s route tree, and each week, he’d execute it without issue. Now, four months into the season, LaFleur’s challenge isn’t finding out what new things Jones can do—it’s filing away all that he’s already learned. “I still don’t know if we have a handle on it,” LaFleur says of Jones’s entire skill set. “It feels like everything we give him, he does such a great job with it. It’s trying to make sure that we remember and catalog all these things so we have them implemented in the game plan.”

In the rare moments that Jones has slipped up, the same mistake rarely happens twice. In front of a prime-time Monday Night Football audience in Week 6 against the Lions, Jones ran his first vertical route of the season—and dropped a perfect throw in the end zone. “That does a lot to you as a player,” Jones says. “You drop an easy touchdown on a wide-open play. It doesn’t get any easier than that. My brother’s telling me, ‘I’ve got better hands than you.’ Somebody sitting on the couch is saying, ‘I could make that play.’” The very next week, the Packers ran a nearly identical concept against the Raiders, and Jones corralled the pass for a 21-yard touchdown. “That’s one of the most incredible catches I’ve ever seen,” Hackett says. “Aaron [Rodgers] throws it inside of him, [Jones] is looking right, and has to flip over and catch it on his left. There’s not a lot of wide receivers who can do that.”

As LaFleur and his staff game-planned for the following week’s matchup against the Chiefs, the head coach threw out the idea of lining Jones up as a receiver and asking him to execute a route he’d never given to a running back: a slant-and-go (sluggo). The Packers had a hunch that if they motioned to an empty formation with Jones out wide on second-and-long, Kansas City would send a linebacker out to cover him one-on-one. Lo and behold, when Green Bay ran that play during the game, linebacker Anthony Hitchens followed Jones toward the sideline. It was time. As the slot receiver to his side cleared out, Jones faked a move inside before breaking back out and toasting Hitchens down the left sideline. If Jones hadn’t stumbled, it would have been a 60-yard touchdown. Instead, it went for 50 yards and set up an eventual 1-yard Williams touchdown run. After finishing with just 35 total targets and 9 air yards in 2018, Jones led all running backs with six targets of 20-plus yards this season. He tallied 194 air yards; only Johnson and Patriots pass-catching specialist James White finished with more.

“He’s a rare talent,” LaFleur says. “It’s very rare that you can take that guy out of the backfield and put him in a receiver position. I don’t know too many running backs that we’ve given sluggos to. I didn’t envision that. You have an idea when you watch the tape, but until you work with them, you don’t really know exactly what the capabilities are.”

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

On a Tuesday in early December, Jones is sitting on a black leather chair in a side room of Lambeau Field. He’s wearing tan Ugg boots, dark sweats, and a black camo Packers jacket—his outfit for a promo appearance he just finished for Sargento cheese. It doesn’t get more Wisconsin than that. He’s talking about the 2017 draft, and the fact that he didn’t really have a hunch of where he’d wind up, or when he would be selected. He didn’t expect to be taken very high—not in a class draft full of backs that played in the SEC and other major conferences. But he still didn’t think that 18 running backs would be taken ahead of him that weekend. He can name most of them without prompting: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Marlon Mack, Jamaal Williams, Donnel Pumphrey, Kareem Hunt, T.J. Logan, James Conner, D’onta Foreman, Joe Williams, Tarik Cohen.

Some players twist draft-day falls into slights that fuel their entire careers. Jones isn’t one of them. Sure, the list is long, he says, but look at the players on it. “I feel like the 2017 draft was a great running back class,” Jones says. “You even have guys after me—Chris Carson and Austin Ekeler, who went undrafted—who are making a lot of noise in this league. I like to say kudos to those guys. I’m proud of that draft class.” Even his own father is quick to acknowledge just how great McCaffrey was this season, as he racked up 2,392 yards from scrimmage—the third-highest total in NFL history. But unlike Jones, McCaffrey has been the focal point of his team’s offense for his entire career.

Jones had to wait until his third season to be unleashed in Green Bay, and as the Packers begin their potential playoff run on Sunday against the Seahawks, they may be leaning on him more than ever. After two years of waiting, everyone has finally gotten a chance to see what Aaron Jones can be. And the Packers head coach feels like this is just the start. “It’s something we’re going to build on in the future,” LaFleur says. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re creative and using him in the right way—because he is a valuable, dangerous weapon.”

The Ringer NFL Show

Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl Recap

The Bill Simmons Podcast

Super Bowl Lessons and Super-duper-star Steph 2.0 With Kevin Clark and Logan Murdock

The Ringer Fantasy Football Show

Super Bowl Superlatives, Burn Book, and Commercials

View all stories in NFL Playoffs