You know what they say about dynamite and small packages, right?
That’s what Aaron Jones was at Texas-El Paso. At 5-foot-9 1/8, Jones last month became the shortest running back selected by Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. Jones, however, was dynamite in that small — well, short — package. In a little more than three seasons, he set UTEP’s career rushing record.
“He’s powerful but, when you look at him, you wouldn’t think he’s as powerful as he is,” longtime UTEP director of football operations Nathan Poss said. “He’s as solid as a rock. But he’s an elusive guy. I think he’s got great vision. He’ll find a hole. When someone else can’t find it, he finds holes. He has that burst.”
Despite missing all but two games of the 2015 season with an injured ankle, Jones set the school’s career rushing record with 4,114 yards. In 2016, he set single-season school records with 1,773 yards and 17 touchdowns. He averaged 7.7 yards per carry.
Here’s what makes Jones’ numbers so impressive: Pro Football Focus had data on 70 running backs in this draft class. Jones ranked fourth in that group with an average of 3.98 yards after contact. Of the 18 running backs picked ahead of him, only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (second round, Vikings) averaged more yards after contact than Jones (4.19).
Jones, the son of military parents, was born in Savannah, Ga., and spent about four years in Germany. He spent his high school years in El Paso and stayed home to go to college. This was hardly a hometown recruiting coup for UTEP, though. Jones was a two-star recruit, according to Scout.com.
Jones, however, made an instant impact. He rushed for 811 yards as a freshman in 2013 and 1,321 yards (with 30 receptions) as a sophomore in 2014. He was off to another big start before going down in 2015, with 209 yards (and nine receptions), and returned in style in 2016 with a huge season that included 28 catches and 20 total touchdowns.
“He came in at 165 (pounds). He knew that in order to be an every-down running back, he had to gain weight,” Poss said. “He did it gradually over the course of time. He worked hard, lifted and ran hard, and made himself that way. To be honest, when we signed him, we had no idea that he would turn out to be the productive player that he was. He’s the leading rusher in Texas Western/UTEP Miner history, which goes back a hundred years — and he did it in three seasons and two games.”
Before Jones, the shortest back drafted by Thompson was Brandon Jackson. There are some similarities. At the Combine, Jones was 5-foot-9 1/8 and 208 pounds. He ran his 40 in 4.49 seconds, completed his shuttle in 4.20 seconds and posted a vertical jump of 37.5 inches. At the 2007 Combine, Jackson measured in at 5-foot-9 7/8 and 210 pounds, and posted a 40 of 4.55, shuttle of 4.14 and vertical of 37.
Jackson, a second-round pick, failed to become a featured back but emerged as a third-down weapon because of his receiving and pass-protection skills. With 58 receptions in his full seasons of 2014 and 2016, Jones looks like he could be a dynamic passing-game weapon.
“Screens and normal running back routes but we gave him some inside deep routes, too, and he showed that he can catch those, too,” Poss said. “He’s worked really hard on his pass-catching abilities. You can tell. We used him in a lot of ways.”
Where Jones must improve is pass protection. Jackson became a rock in that role. He brought strength to the table with 21 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the Combine. Jones posted only 16 reps and struggled in that phase of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones allowed one sack and a total of five pressures in 47 pass-blocking snaps. Of PFF’s 70 backs, Jones ranked 61st in its pass-blocking efficiency metric.
“Aaron will do anything you ask him. I know he’ll do a good job of that, too,” Poss said.
The Packers have leaned on Eddie Lacy and James Starks for most of the past four seasons, so Jones potentially would add a new dimension to the backfield.
“He’s good enough,” Poss said. “As a matter of fact, before the Packers took him, they had already taken Williams (and) he’s more of a big back. I watched the Packers play this past year when I’d have a chance and I knew that they had a need for someone like Aaron. To me, it didn’t surprise me when they drafted him because I knew he would fit in and he would fit in with the Packer culture. I have no doubt that he’ll have a really good career with the Packers.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.