Fantasy Football: Aaron Jones Has League-Winning Upside in 2018
Fantasy football is all about value. Finding a potential breakout player in the mid-to-late rounds of your draft can be the difference between winning a championship and missing the playoffs. Ask anyone who drafted Marvin Jones in the ninth round and was treated to an overall WR5 finish in standard leagues a season ago. Better yet, ask anyone who took a flier on Alvin Kamara in the 13th round and was then gifted with a fantasy MVP-caliber season.
Now that's value.
It's no secret that analysts and fans alike spend countless offseason hours trying to figure out who might be the next breakout player. And while draft season is still months away, mock drafts are a great way to get a handle on which up-and-comer is poised to break out of the doldrums of the late rounds and establish himself as a difference-maker.
It's still early, but right now, one particular name stands out in a big way. If the trends of May continue into the draft season later this summer, we may very well have found our man in Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones.
Flying Under the Radar
It's no secret that 2017 was the year of the rookie runner. Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Christian McCaffrey all accumulated over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Joe Mixon steadily improved as the season wore on, and Dalvin Cook looked like a future stud prior to his Week 4 ACL tear. As a result, all six of these backs rank in the top 35 in standard-league average draft position (ADP), per Fantasy Football Calculator
But lost in all this hype is what Jones accomplished during his inaugural NFL campaign. Indeed, the fifth-round pick out of UTEP entered the league without all of the hype and fanfare that surrounded the top backs in the class. When the Packers drafted him one round after taking Jamaal Williams and immediately inserted him into a backfield that was supposed to feature Ty Montgomery, Jones was projected to be little more than a depth player as a rookie.
Ultimately, the franchise's running back room ended up being something of a quagmire for fantasy purposes (more on that later), but Jones saw the field much more than he was expected to, taking 81 carries for 448 yards and 4 touchdowns as a rookie.
While those counting statistics aren't bad, they certainly don't appear elite on paper. However, the real truth about Jones' remarkable performance can be illustrated by advanced stats, because elite is exactly what he was.
Here at numberFire, we have two main analytics for measuring a running back's performance: Net Expected Points (NEP) and Success Rate. NEP is our in-house metric that employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player adds to his team's expected-point total.
Success Rate, on the other hand, demonstrates what percentage of a back's carries were classified as successful runs -- in other words, adding positive value. The two metrics work together in concert to illuminate the player's overall performance and give us a pretty clear picture of who the most efficient backs in the game are.
With that said, here are 2017's top-15 performers in NEP per Rush and their corresponding Success Rates (Note: this study is confined to runners who received 60 or more carries last season).
|Player||Rushing NEP Per Carry||Success Rate||Yards Per Carry|
So what does this table tell us? For starters, Jones was a complete stud running the football last year.
With the second-highest Rushing NEP per attempt, the second-best yards per carry and tied for the highest Success Rate (among qualified backs), it's evident that he made the most of his opportunities. Granted, his workload wasn't as robust as many of the names on this list, but 81 totes isn't an insignificant number.
It's clear that only Kamara, who produced one of the most hyper-efficient seasons imaginable, was discernibly better. In fact, Jones outperformed all of the biggest names in football in every category.
Now, in no way am I trying to argue that Jones is a superior overall player to Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott. That would be ridiculous, especially considering the disparity between his workload and those of bell-cow runners such as these two. However, there is no way around one simple reality: last season, Jones was among the best backs in football on a per-carry basis.
The numbers don't lie.
Crowded in Green Bay
It's become quite stuffy in the Packers' backfield of late. Jones, Montgomery, and Williams all remain in the mix, and as the offseason rolls along, the team isn't saying much about how they intend to divvy up the rushing workload this season.
Without any hints, it's hard to predict how things might play out, and this will be one of the crucial training camp battles to watch this summer. Each of these runners saw time as the lead back in 2017, and all three dealt with various injuries throughout the campaign. Williams made seven starts, Montgomery made five, and Jones made four.
So, who should be the Packers' lead back in 2018? The data makes that pretty clear.
|Player||Rushes||Rushing NEP Per Carry||Success Rate||Yards Per Carry|
Again, the numbers are staggering. Jones was far and away the most effective runner in this trio. This is in no way intended to discredit Montgomery and Williams, who are solid players in their own right. The league average Rushing NEP per carry last year was -0.05 and the median Success Rate was 38.08%. Clearly, both TyMont and Williams were well above the curve in these categories.
But Jones was simply much better.
Perhaps most importantly, during the four games in which he had the opportunity to share the field with Aaron Rodgers, Jones was terrific, taking 48 carries for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns, and earning the respect of his quarterback in the process.
And yet, for some reason, Jones has the lowest ADP of the three. Montgomery and Williams both have sixth-round ADP's in 12-team standard formats, slotting in as the 71st and 78th overall players on the board, respectively. Meanwhile, Jones' ADP remains way down in the eighth round at pick 92.
Yes, Jones offers the least passing game upside of the Packers' running backs and in a best-case scenario is likely a two-down player, but that should matter more in points per reception (PPR) formats. Maybe fantasy owners are scared of a three-headed timeshare, which -- if it happened -- would obviously ding the value for Jones, Williams and Montgomery.
Also, perhaps there's a bit of concern in the fantasy community about Jones' availability. After all, knee injuries limited him to 12 games and 81 attempts last season, and he could be facing discipline from the league stemming from an October 2017 marijuana-related traffic arrest . Jones pleaded no contest to the charges back in February, and that's the last we've heard about it. Still, it was a first-time offense, so there's plenty of reason to be optimistic that Jones will avoid a lengthy (if any) suspension.
Regardless of any potential pitfalls, Jones offers upside you don't find very often once you get down into the range of RB36. By virtually any measure, Jones was one of the most efficient runners in football on a per-play basis in 2017, and he was far and away the most impactful player in his own backfield.
In 2018, he's likely to have Rodgers on the field for an entire season as the Packers look to re-establish themselves as one of the game's best offenses. An efficient running back in a high-scoring offense is two-thirds of the dream scenario. The final third, of course, is adding big-time volume to that equation, and that's the big wild card here.
We need to monitor any reports on the Packers' backfield throughout the summer, because even though Jones' efficiency is superb, it's volume that truly matters in fantasy. If Jones is expected to feed off scraps and play behind Williams and/or Montgomery, he'll need injuries or poor play from those two to get his shot. On the flip side, if Jones rises to the top of the depth chart and plays the role of Green Bay's lead back in the preseason, his ADP will soar, and he'll offer through-the-roof upside.
As of now, taking a gamble on Jones' upside may be worth the risk at his current price. He was the team's best runner last season, and it could be difficult for the Packers to keep him off the field if he seizes his chances again this fall.
The mid-to-late rounds represent the best juncture to swing for the fence and take a flier on a high-upside player. In 2018, there may be no late-round option with more upside than Aaron Jones.