Aaron Jones Could Be X-Factor for Vikings

aaron jones
Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) runs the ball at training camp practice on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. © Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Now that the drama over Justin Jefferson’s contract is over, the Vikings are sure to have all hands on deck at the start of training camp, with the lone exception of waiting on T.J. Hockenson’s return from his ACL injury.

Aaron Jones Could Be X-Factor for Vikings

The 2024 Vikings are shaping up as an intriguing team. Most analysts do not think that they’re a projected NFC playoff team. Apparently, due to uncertainty at quarterback, the league office and the networks didn’t think highly of the Vikings when they gave them only two prime-time national TV dates—on Thursday, October 24, at the Rams (every team gets one Thursday night game) and Monday, December 16 at home against the Bears. Vikings-Packers or Vikings-Lions were not deemed worthy unless one of the last two games—home vs. Green Bay or at Detroit—is flexed later.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports.

It reminds me of the 2022 season when there were relatively low expectations at the outset after an 8-9 season that led to the firing of GM Rick Spielman and Coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings, under the new regime of GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell, surprised everyone with a 13-win regular season and NFC North title before the playoff loss to the Giants.

The X Factor in 2022 was the emergence of Kirk Cousins as a clutch QB who led eight fourth-quarter comebacks.

Running back Aaron Jones is my top candidate to be the potential X Factor who could make the difference between a playoff season or not in 2024. We know Justin Jefferson will be great, as always. That’s a given if he stays healthy. Sure, it could be one of the QBs who play better than expected–Sam Darnold with a career year or J.J. McCarthy doing what C.J. Stroud did in Houston last year as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year led the Texans from 3-13-1 to AFC South champs and a playoff win over Cleveland.

Or perhaps Dallas Turner will be the next Nick Bosa or Micah Parsons and ignite a ferocious pass rush that makes the defense so good that it leads the team to the postseason. 

But if Jones is as dominant as he was (alongside Jordan Love) in the Packers’ 2023 late-season surge, he can play a big role in helping to balance the Vikings’ offense, which has leaned heavily toward the passing game, and help free up Jefferson, Hockenson, and Jordan Addison. 

After dealing with hamstring and knee injuries that cost him six games, Jones got healthy down the stretch and delivered 100-plus rushing yards in the last five games. That included 120 yards in a key Week 17 win at Minnesota, 118 rushing yards and three TDs in the Packers’ wild card upset in Dallas, and 108 yards on the ground in the divisional round at San Francisco.

Aaron jones
Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) tosses the ball in the stands after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter of the wild card playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, January 14, 2024 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Jones is a three-time thousand-yard back since entering the league as Green Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2017. He’s only two years removed from running for 1,121 yards and having 59 receptions for 395 yards with seven combined TDs in 2022.

If Jones can stay healthy and play in every game as he did in 2022, then he and Ty Chandler surely will help the team improve on their No. 29 ranking in the running game last season. Surely, the Vikings’ offensive line is as good as the Packers. A new quarterback in Darnold or a rookie quarterback in McCarthy will definitely benefit from a better rushing attack and a top running back.

It also helps the time of possession and is a big aid to the defense by keeping them off the field more, which can be critical as the Vikings face high-powered offensive teams such as the Lions and Packers (and possibly the Bears, too) in their own division. 

Yes, Jones is 29, but Adrian Peterson was 30 when he delivered 1,485 yards and 15 TDs for the 2015 Vikings, who won the NFC North. I’m not saying Jones is the caliber of Peterson (a likely Hall of Famer), but Jones certainly is a well-accomplished NFL back.

Jones’ new teammates and coaches understand what he can bring to the table.

Jefferson and Jones already have a mutual admiration society, as evidenced by their comments during last week’s minicamp. Jones told Jefferson, “You’re going to make my job easier.” And according to Jones, Jefferson responded, “Nah, you’re going to make my job easier.”

Jones added, “I guess that’s what we’re here for—to make each other’s job easier. He’s going to take some attention off me and hopefully I can do the same for him.”

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

This could be what the Vikings had in 2022, with Dalvin Cook rushing for 1,173 yards and eight TDs and adding 39 catches for 295 yards and two TDs, while Jefferson led the NFL with 128 catches and 1,809 yards as the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. And the Vikings won 13 games. Of course, that was a career year for Cousins, so the QBs have much to say about how the season goes. But a better rushing attack led by a Pro Bowl back (as was the case with Cook) can make a huge difference.

Jones certainly will be extra fired up and pass that along to his teammates when the Vikings face the Packers in Weeks 4 (at Lambeau) and 17 (at U.S. Bank Stadium). He’s missed in Green Bay, according to QB Jordan Love. “Yeah, it was very tough,” Love said. “Aaron Jones is such a special player, special guy in the locker room since I’ve been here. Everyone loved Aaron. It’s one of those things you can’t control.”

O’Connell certainly is excited to add Jones to his offensive mix after the Packers tried to cut his salary for the second straight year and released him when Jones balked.

“When we had the opportunity to bring him here, you don’t think it’s really possible and now you’re adding a talented player with a great skill set that fits what you do,” O’Connell said. “He’s also a leader who uplifts and makes the whole program better.

“He’s been awesome. I’ve always had such respect for how he plays the game. He hasn’t had to do anything here other than what he’s always done—be a great teammate, super successful talented guy who is going to have a lot of success in our system.”

If he stays on the field, that is. Then we’re talking X Factor potential for the 2024 Vikings.  

More Observations as Offseason Program Wraps Up

1. It’s obvious O’Connell is a “players coach.” We’ve seen that in how he relates to players and rarely if ever has criticized one of his players publicly. It stems from O’Connell’s background as an NFL QB and is an offshoot of his friendly and positive personality. The latest example of O’Connell doing things his players appreciate is allowing vets with four-plus years experience to skip this week’s three OTA sessions and head off to their summer break early.

Dalton Risner
Minnesota Vikings guard Dalton Risner addressed the media from the TCO Performance Center. Dalton Risner: “We All Know We Have A Great Culture But We Came Up Short This Season.”

2. It’s interesting to hear O’Connell say that Dalton Risner will compete in training camp for both starting guard spots, with Blake Brandel at left guard and Ed Ingram at right guard. This puts pressure on Ingram as a second-round pick in 2022 to become a more consistent player. He’s been a better run blocker than pass protector in his first two seasons.

And it makes Brandel earn a starting spot when it appeared it was being handed to him before Risner re-signed. This competition should help the Vikings improve their interior offensive line this season.

3. I think the signing of tight end Robert Tonyan is a somewhat under-the-radar move that can become an important factor for the offense as long as Hockenson is out and perhaps once he returns. Tonyan has looked good in his early days with the Vikings. Ed Oliver is a great run-blocking tight end who can make plays in the passing game. Johnny Mundt is a good player, but Tonyan is a more proven receiving tight end who had 50-plus catches in 2020 and 2022 in Green Bay and has 17 career TD receptions.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl