After witnessing what rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott did for the Dallas Cowboys offense in his first year in the league, many teams are hoping one of the many talented players at the position in this season’s class can do the same for them. The Bengals already have their 1-2 combo in Jeremy Hill and a rehabbing Giovani Bernard, but the Rex Burkhead experience in the last third of 2016 surely forced Cincinnati to realize they can improve the unit.
If the Bengals don’t take one of the big names like LSU star Leonard Fournette, FSU stud Dalvin Cook or controversial Oklahoma back Joe Mixon, the Bengals could wait until the mid rounds to add a running back. One name that could fit what they’re looking for is Texas-El Paso running back Aaron Jones, whom the Bengals met with at the NFL Combine. The UTEP’s all-time leading rusher had 100-plus yards in 17 career games and reached 200 yards in five more, and after missing nearly all of 2015 with a torn ligament in his left ankle, he ranked fourth in all of the college football with 1,773 rushing yards in 2016. Jones did receive some FBS offers coming out of high school, but chose to stick home at UTEP with his twin brother Alvin, a linebacker.
Position: Running back
Weight: 208 pounds
Arm length: 32 1/2"
Hands: 9 1/2"
40-yard dash: 4.56 seconds
Vertical jump: 37.5" (second best among running backs at the Combine)
Broad jump: 10.7" (third best among running backs at the Combine)
3-cone drill: 6.82 seconds (second best among running backs at the Combine)
Draft projection: Round 6
In spite of the injury that kept him away from football in his junior season, Jones came back with a vengeance in 2016, posting monster numbers although against minor competition. UTEP destroyed North Texas, Houston Baptist, barely beat Texas-San Antonio and closed the season with a solid win against New Mexico State. They also suffered heavy defeats to Rice, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Army and Texas. Not exactly what you’d call a top program.
Of all the running backs who have amassed 2,000 yards or more from scrimmage from 2006, Jones’ average of 7.81 yards in 2016 was only surpassed by Kerwynn Williams of Utah State in 2012. That list is filled with stars like Melvin Gordon, Elliott, Matt Forte, Jay Ajayi and high-end 2017 prospects like Fournette, Cook, D’Onta Foreman and Christian McCaffrey. Jones was just about the only thing that made UTEP watchable in his time in El Paso - they have only one winning season since 2005.
Jones tried his best against the best competition the Miners faced in Texas, on the road, going for 123 yards and 1 touchdown on 18 carries. The Miners were only able to produce 85 more yards on offense, going 14 of 21 for 73 yards through the air.
Despite his small frame, Jones is a powerful runner who bursts into the hole and has very good vision on the open field. Against smaller schools, he displayed a mean stiff arm, but that power will be hard to translate against bigger and stronger NFL defenders.
Being recruited from high school as both a running back and a wide receiver, Jones has good hands and in the two seasons that he played full time, he was featured in the passing game, catching 58 passes for 536 yards in 2014 and 2016 combined. He was already making waves before his monster redshirt junior season. In his two games played in 2015, he added 106 yards on 9 catches, too.
Aaron Jones from UTEP...kid is the truth man. So good with his off hand. Strong athlete, but physical runner. Great receiver.— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) May 6, 2016
The combine helped him a lot, given his small frame. If he can’t be a power running back in the next level, he can at least be a quick, shifty runner who thrives in zone running offenses. His 3-cone drill mark was pretty good. For instance check his measurables from MockDraftable:
What to like:
A quick runner who can burst into the hole with great vision and good feel for where to go in the open field? Jones can help you on third downs both as a receiver and as a runner out of the shotgun. He might not be great in short yardage situations because of his size, but the Bengals already have a big, slow guy at the position in Jeremy Hill.
He wasn’t the fastest at the 40-yard dash, but his marks in both the 20-yard and the 60-yard dash were among the top three for running backs. That finishing speed makes the difference between a 6-yard carry and a long gain. Jones might not get those 3 or 4 yards that help you move the chain consistently, but he can make plays happen, and the Bengals’ running game lacked big plays, except for the team’s matchups against the Browns. Jones was a two-year captain, showing his leadership ability and received First Team All-CUSA honors in 2016, a record-setting year for the El Paso native.
What needs work:
Jones is small and that shows. He gets pounded at the line of scrimmage and his pass protection is missing, although he tries hard. Jones also needs to be more patient and wait for his linemen to set up the blocks in front of him. Way too many times, he’d run up to the line of scrimmage only to be stopped by his own teammates’ backs. The power he showed with UTEP against lesser rivals will be hard to replicate in the NFL.
Injuries are also a concern. Not only did he miss almost the entire 2015 season with a torn ligament, he’s also dealt with rib and shoulder injuries earlier on in his college career. Jones also ran into trouble in 2016 after being arrested for driving while intoxicated.
Jones is 22 and carried the ball for 658 times during his college career, so the wear and tear on his body is also something to consider.
How does he fit in the Bengals:
Leonard Fournette and Joe Mixon are popular mock draft picks for the Bengals and they are two of the best running backs in a draft class loaded with talent at the position. The former might be gone even before the Bengals’ first pick at number 9, and the later has his own baggage. If Cincinnati wants to bank on Jeremy Hill for one more year and with a long list of holes elsewhere in the roster, the team could likely still find a quality running back on Day 3, like Jones.
Jones is being projected as high as the fourth round, but could fall to the sixth. With a bruiser already in town in Hill, Jones could help Cincinnati to ease Bernard back into the lineup following his ACL tear.