This is the second in a series of stories previewing the Packers' draft.
GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers hasn’t gotten a look at the full version of the Green Bay Packers offensive playbook during the first week and a half of new head coach Matt LaFleur’s offseason program.
But the two-time NFL MVP quarterback knows one thing about it: If things go according to plan, he’s going to be handing the ball off more than he has in a long, long time.
“I know we want to run the ball,” Rodgers said last week after the first few days of the offseason program were in the books. “That’s important. Everything (in LaFleur’s offense) comes off of a positive run game. They ran the ball really well last year with their guys (in Tennessee). But the (play) action comes off of that, the boot (leg action) comes off of that. So we’re going to have to run the ball.”
And, Rodgers believes, the Packers have two running backs who can provide the kind of ground game he and LaFleur will need for the passing game to take off: Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, both of whom are entering their third NFL seasons after being picked in back-to-back rounds in the 2017 NFL Draft — Williams in the fourth round out of BYU and Jones in the fifth round out of Texas-El Paso.
In an ESPN Wisconsin interview last week, Rodgers said both players jumped out at him as being in tip-top shape when the players came back for the offseason program, and Rodgers reiterated that position when he spoke with the media at midweek.
“I’m excited about them,” Rodgers said. “I like to tease Aaron Jones from time to time. He’s the most athletic, fast guy with a little bit of a belly. He’s pretty lean this year. It’s fun being back with all the guys. I especially like those two guys."
The Packers are moving to an outside zone running scheme, and given both LaFleur’s history as a play-caller with the Titans last year and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s run-first mentality as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ play-caller in 2017, their commitment to the run is more than just talk.
That’s why it’s likely that general manager Brian Gutekunst will use at least one of his 10 picks on a running back, although it’s unlikely to be one of his first-round picks (Nos. 12 and 30). In fact, it’s possible no running backs will go in the first round.
Alabama’s Josh Jacobs is considered the top running back in this year’s class, although he may still be there in the second round. Teammate Damien Harris could also be a second-round pick, while Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Penn State’s Miles Sanders figured to come off the board after them.
Asked at the annual NFL Meetings last month if finding a third running back is a priority, LaFleur replied, “Absolutely. And that’s not to discount anybody else on our roster. But certainly, yeah, you’d like to have three quality backs going into any season. And I know I’ve said this before: You better have at least two backs that you feel really good about."
The Packers feel that way about Williams and Jones, but Jones’ durability is open to question. As explosive as he’s been in his first two NFL seasons, averaging an NFL-best 5.47 yards per carry last year, he also missed the last two games of the year with a knee injury, a sprained medial collateral ligament. It was his third MCL sprain in two years.
Even though the Packers dropped back to pass an NFL-most 71.5 percent of their offensive snaps last year, Jones still managed to run for 728 yards and eight touchdowns in just 12 games. (He missed the season’s first two games for an NFL suspension.) Williams, meanwhile, ran for 464 yards and three TDs but has stayed healthier than Jones during their first two seasons.
That history, as well as LaFleur’s desire to run the ball more — and willingness to use different backs — mean having more options in the backfield will be important. While serving as the Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach, he saw head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan toggle between Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
“I think that’s something that happens on a weekly basis in terms of in-game adjustments in terms of who’s got the hot hand, who’s running well,” LaFleur said of his mentality on which backs to use and when. “At the end of the day, it’s so matchup-based. I can remember going into a game vs. Denver where we were going to try to get Tevin in more of a receiver role and we hit him on a couple (passes). I think he had over 100 yards receiving.
“So certainly there’s some games where you go in with the mindset knowing that one of the guys is going to be featured, if you will, a little bit more than the other guy.”