GREEN BAY – At the height of the pandemic, when training facilities were locked down nationwide, Aaron Jones set up shop in his family's garage in El Paso, Texas.
The Packers running back didn't have any state-of-the-art equipment. There was no professional trainer monitoring his every move. When Jones wanted to work on his hands, it was his father, Alvin Sr., running the JUGS machine in the yard.
Two games into the 2020 NFL season, the unconventional offseason appears to be paying dividends for Jones. The fourth-year veteran currently leads the league in rushing (234 yards) but he's also flashed his budding skills as a pass-catcher.
In last Sunday's 42-21 win over Detroit, Jones hauled in four passes for a team-high 68 yards and a touchdown. His longest catch came in the third quarter when Jones split out wide and made a leaping grab over Lions cornerback Darryl Roberts for a 30-yard pickup on second-and-15.
"He's just a mismatch everywhere he goes," said receiver Davante Adams of Jones. "Running the ball, we obviously know what he can do, and then he has the ability to just embarrass any linebackers if they're foolish enough to put a linebacker on him. And then you see what happened last game, they put a corner on him and he goes dunking on his head."
Jones' game has been on a steady incline since the Packers drafted him in the fifth round out of UTEP in 2017. Over these past three-plus years, the 5-foot-9, 208-pound running back has developed from an intriguing prospect, labeled by most as a scat back, to a dangerous, every-down threat.
Adams believes it's because Jones' "attention to detail in his game has gone through the roof." Much like close friend and fellow running back Jamaal Williams, Jones has leaned on Adams when it comes to the nuances of pass-catching.
After a dropping a pass early in camp, Jones went up to the three-time Pro Bowl receiver and peppered him with questions about hand placement and whether he should have "had his pinkies together" compared to the traditional diamond grip.
For Aaron Rodgers, he thinks back to Jones' first NFL start against Dallas in 2017. Jones rushed for 125 yards and a TD in his home state but it was how the rookie laid out to catch a 9-yard pass that made an impression on his quarterback.
"After that you're kind of like, 'Wow, this guy can basically catch it anywhere,'" Rodgers said. "He's just a really talented guy and the things that he feels like he needs to work on, he does."
When plays don't work out – like when Jones dropped a ball last year in Detroit (a lapse he's apologized to Rodgers for no less than "82 times") – the 25-year-old running back makes the necessary corrections and moves forward.
This is how the running back position has evolved in today's NFL. The job description has expanded past running, protecting the football and pass blocking. The best of the best have to run routes as efficiently as receivers – and catch the football.
That's the direction the league has trended over the past decade – more running backs, running more designed routes, catching more passes. No longer are running backs considered to be just emergency check-down options. They're field-tilters.
According to Pro Football Focus, the top 25 pass-catching running backs combined for 9,261 receiving yards in 2009. Last year? That swelled to 11,302 yards with All-Pro Christian McCaffrey surpassing 1,000 yards receiving individually.
This Sunday in New Orleans, the Packers will be staring across the field from one of the NFL's other elite pass-catching backs in Alvin Kamara, who has more receiving yards (146) than yards on the ground (96) through the first two games of the year.
"Running backs like Alvin Kamara … he's an athlete out there," said Packers linebacker Christian Kirksey. "When you split him out, that's what makes him one of the better running backs in the league when he can come like a receiver.
"That's why he can take over games because he can do both. It's definitely a challenge when you have a guy like that."
Green Bay is no slouch, either. All told, the Packers' running backs caught 98 passes for 841 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019, the most by Green Bay's backfield since 2006.
The Packers are off to another strong start behind Jones, Williams and Tyler Ervin, a trio Green Bay may need to rely on even more this Sunday if Adams (hamstring) isn't able to play.
After putting in the work this offseason to round out his game, Jones feels primed to make the most out of every touch he's given – regardless of whether it's a run or a pass.
"I think it's just the growth in me, and just continuing to work and not being satisfied with anything," Jones said. "I mean, you have a good season last year, but you're only as good as last year. So you have to come out and outperform that. There's a lot of ways to better your game and continue to work."