Aaron Jones bet on himself in 2020, and it paid off mightily. While his season ended unceremoniously at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 26-year-old was off to the races for much of the year and became one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. His dominance last season has him sitting atop a robust free agency class of halfbacks this offseason, and there's arguably quite a bit of distance between first place and the rest of the field.
Jones finished the year with a career-best in several categories, delivering 1,104 rushing yards with nine rushing touchdowns to his stat line -- on the way to 1,459 yards from scrimmage and a combined 11 touchdowns. That makes for 3,017 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns in his two most recent NFL seasons, so it stands to reason why teams will come a'calling as soon as the league's legal tampering period gets underway. And, with that, let's take a look at the top five potential suitors for Jones' services, and what kind of a chance they stand at actually landing him for 2021.
[Note: Cap numbers are based upon the $180 million floor, and not the pending final cap figure -- courtesy of OverTheCap.com]
Approximate Cap Space: (-)$6.5 million
They have the inside track to landing Jones, but they'll have to truly massage the cap to get him the numbers he feels he deserves, and his decision to not accept their 2020 offer indicates they didn't work it over enough. It'll be just as difficult to do so in an offseason where they're in the red and need to make moves simply to get into league compliance by mid-March, but Jones also has to know not every team has a talent like Aaron Rodgers at quarterback or a wideout like Davante Adams at receiver. Those two variables allow Jones to operate more freely in the offense -- opposing defenses being forced to scheme for the macro and not the micro -- and he might find it much more challenging to rack up numbers with less talented players around him. That isn't to say he won't still be able to, but it is to say it's an NFL reality that warrants consideration.
Approximate Cap Space: $27 million
After playing his entire NFL career in the tundra, it's gotta be attractive to consider moving to South Florida. What also helps the Dolphins is the fact they have a more easily manipulated cap situation, a dire need at the position and how their overall needle is pointing north going forward. They'll need to make a decision on if Tua Tagovailoa is truly the future at QB1, but putting Jones behind him (or a newly-drafted QB in 2021) will go a long way in finally resolving the void at RB in Miami. The two sides already reportedly have interest in each other, and the offer could be driven higher not only by the want and need, but also in how at least one AFC East rival might be angling for him as well, and it's the one with a monstrous amount of cap space.
Approximate Cap Space: $73 million
This is a team that could be in position to finally blast off, assuming general manager Joe Douglas builds it correctly going forward, and that will include trying his hand at again creating an offense worthy of being fret over. The jury is out on what will happen to quarterback Sam Darnold, but the Jets have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, so there's certainly an option to fix that position and then to get cooking on bolstering the receiving unit and throwing a ton of money at Jones -- giving him the chance to be what Le'Veon Bell wasn't with Gang Green. Money is obviously a large part of any free agent's decision in the NFL, and the Jets can easily blow past anyone on this list financially if they truly want to make Jones an offer he can't refuse. That said, Jones is also accustomed to winning, and there are zero promises that'll be his experience in New York.
Approximate Cap Space: $18 million
It feels like it was just yesterday when the 49ers had a stable of talented running backs that could damage you in a variety of ways, and it being a key reason they made it to Super Bowl LIV to face off with the Kansas City Chiefs. It's now 2021, however, and this is a team that sent Matt Breida to the Dolphins and will see Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon hit free agency alongside both Breida and Jones, leaving the 49ers with a rather sizable void to fill behind Jimmy Garoppolo -- assuming that's who'll be their quarterback in 2021. While it's been noted future Hall of Fame halfback Frank Gore would like to reunite with the club, they would need to tandem him with a more dynamic RB1, if that was the route they wished to travel. It feels like the 49ers are one healthy defense and a potent running back away from returning to the Big Game, and Jones is most certainly the latter.
Approximate Cap Space: $17 million
If Kliff Kingsbury wants to continue enjoying Kyler Murray's abilities for the long haul, maintaining a stout RB situation will be key. It is this frame of thought that led the Cardinals to trade with the Dolphins and land Kenyan Drake in 2019, but Drake is now set to join Jones and a list of other halfbacks in free agency, and that leaves Arizona back at square one. The easy thing to do would be to simply re-sign Drake -- considering he's earned it -- but if he wants a change of scenery and/or the Cardinals would prefer to shell out money to a slightly younger and bit more dynamic Jones, it could mean the difference between finishing in fourth place in the hyper-competitive NFC West or in first, with nearly every division game going to the wire. Jones is added oomph at RB, especially if paired with Chase Edmonds and on an offense that features the weapons in Arizona, if the Cardinals can afford him.
Sleeper pick: Chicago Bears
Approximate Cap Space: $3 million
Kudos to David Montgomery for breaking the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his young career, finishing the 2020 season with a career-high 1,508 yards from scrimmage with 10 touchdowns. That should in no way deter the Bears from at least trying to add Jones to the roster, though, especially having often been on the receiving end of what he can do within their division. Here's a chance to not only add firepower to the offense, but to siphon away a rival weapon in the process and use him against the Packers going forward. Paying wideout Allen Robinson and resolving the QB situation are both paramount for the Bears, and the sooner they can at least get Robinson taken care of, the sooner they can jump in the mix for Jones.