Come for Aaron Rodgers-Drew Brees, stay for Aaron Jones-Alvin Kamara

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Jones relishes these kinds of games, the ones in which the Green Bay Packers face another of the NFL’s running back elites.

Last season, it was Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and, of course, NFC North rival Dalvin Cook.

The matchup did not favor Jones every time -- there was the 18-yard dud against Barkley at the Giants -- but on most occasions, Jones more than holds his own (see the four-touchdown game against the Cowboys just days after Jones said he could go toe-to-toe with Elliott and the three-touchdown game against the Panthers). In the two Packers-Vikings games in 2019, Cook rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown the first time around, and Jones responded with exactly 154 yards and two touchdowns in the second meeting (Cook did not play).

That makes Sunday night’s game against the New Orleans Saints another intriguing running back sidebar. To be sure, the main item this week is Drew Brees versus Aaron Rodgers -- and the shootout they might engage in -- but don’t sleep on Jones and Saints running back Alvin Kamara.

Kamara has something Jones wants: a contract extension. The Saints gave their fourth-year running back a five-year, $75 million extension (including $34.333 million guaranteed, though the deal has $25 million back-loaded in 2025 that Kamara might never see). Jones, a fifth-round pick who went 115 spots after Kamara in the 2017 draft, is still playing under his rookie deal that will pay him $2.133 million this season.

Although Kamara made a more immediate impact, Jones made a big impact last season on the way to his first 1,000-yard rushing season, with more than 1,500 total yards from scrimmage and an NFL-best 19 touchdowns.

His start to this season suggests that Jones knew he had something to prove.

“Definitely that,” Jones said. “And a number of things go into it.”

Four touchdowns and an NFL-best 312 total yards from scrimmage after two games should qualify.

“I do think I came out and started the season the right way,” he said. “Just got to continue to work to reach -- I still don’t feel like I have reached my full potential, so continue to work to get there. I left some plays out there today, so just go look back at the film and clean those up and get my best game out there.”

When coach Matt LaFleur took over the Packers in 2019, running backs coach Ben Sirmans collected film of backs who have played in this system, notably Devonta Freeman with the Falcons (LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2015-16) and Todd Gurley with the Rams (LaFleur was the offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in 2017).

Jones’ production in 2019 (1,084 yards rushing, 474 yards receiving) was nearly identical to what Freeman did in Atlanta in 2016 (1,079 yards rushing, 462 yards receiving) but didn't quite match what Gurley did in Los Angeles in 2017 (1,305 yards rushing, 780 yards receiving).

“I think all those guys are a little bit different in their game,” LaFleur said. “Aaron's versatility really shows up when we split him out as a wide receiver. He's done some great things. The other thing that I think you can't sleep on [with] Aaron is just his ability as a pass-protector, too. There was a blitz late in that game where Aaron hits MVS down the sideline for a big explosive gain, and Aaron Jones steps up and hits the blitzing linebacker. I know he's outmatched by a solid 50 pounds right there. He’s just a really complete back in all three phases.”

Already this season, Jones has six catches for 56 yards while lined up in a nontraditional position for a back, either in the slot or split out wide, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Last season, 14 of his 49 catches came from those spots.

In Sunday’s win over the Lions, Jones split out wide to the right in an empty formation, ran a straight go route and made a leaping, over-his-head, 30-yard catch against cornerback Darryl Roberts that some receivers might not have been able to haul in.

“I threw one on the other sideline earlier in the game and just missed him,” Rodgers said. “That was a pretty spectacular catch, him high-pointing that, and it was tight coverage. It wasn’t a ball I second-guessed at all. That’s a credit to him. There’s not a high percentage of people around the league, back-wise, that are going to get plays called for them like that and can come down with those. So he is special. He’s a great kid. He’s even, to me, still he’s yes, sir and no, sir. He’s such a great teammate. Such a fun guy to be around.”