Could Aaron Jones & Sean Kugler Ever Reunite in the NFL?
A bit of interesting news piqued my interest over the weekend that flew under the radar involving former UTEP head coach Sean Kugler.
Kugler, the offensive line coach for Arizona since 2019, was promoted by head coach Kliff Kingsbury to the team’s run game coordinator. Kugler is well respected by his coaching peers in Arizona, especially by Kingsbury and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.
“When it comes to the run game or protections, I’m one of those guys who knows what he doesn’t know,” Kingsbury said during the last offseason, reported by Arizona Sports 98.7 FM “I don’t try to go there with Coach Kugs because he’s kind of a run game savant. He’s one of the top O-line coaches in the league, if not the best.“
Because of his play-calling expertise, Kingsbury assumes the team’s offensive coordinator role. With the promotion though, Kugler becomes Kingsbury’s highest-ranking offensive coach.
The Cardinals are also on the verge of being a playoff contender in the NFC with quarterback Kyler Murray leading the squad.
One of the interesting offseason questions that Arizona will need to answer is their inconsistencies at the running back position. Their 2020 starter Kenyan Drake could receive the franchise tag at $8.75 million this offseason. Backup Chase Edmonds is more of a backup as a pass-catching tailback. If Drake decides to walk in free agency and test the market, Arizona would suddenly be in the market for a true No. 1 running back.
Enter in Aaron Jones, whose impending free agency with the Green Bay Packers is looming. As ESPN’s Rob Demovsky reported, Jones fired his previous agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus in order to try and “start over” with contract negotiations.
The Packers, who bowed out of the NFC Championship game to the Bucs, will have significant salary cap issues to deal with this offseason. Among their running back group sits newly drafted AJ Dillion along with fourth-year tailback Jamal Williams, who is also approaching free agency.
For a second straight season, Jones put together a 1,000-plus rushing campaign (1,104) and was the NFL's fourth-best rusher. His impressive fourth year in the league warranted Jones the first Pro Bowl honor of his career.
Kugler and Jones had an excellent relationship back at UTEP.
“I would love Aaron Jones to stay here,” said Kugler back in 2016, before Showtyme elected to enter the pre-NFL draft process. “Not only is he a great player, he’s a leader, he’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve been around. I’m the biggest Aaron Jones fan in the world and I want him to be successful. I’m not the one who’s going to be selfish and stand in his way.”
"When [Kugler] came to my house for an official visit, he told my parents one thing: that we would graduate with a degree from UTEP. He didn't promise playing time or anything, just guaranteed I would get my degree," Jones recalled about the moment he first realized he wanted to play for Kugler and the Miners. "He cares for you off the field the same as he cares about you on the field. It's a reason he was coaching in the league before coming to UTEP and he's back in the league. That just tells you how good of a coach he is! I've had numerous coaches in the NFL come to me talking about how good of a coach he is!"
Familiarity goes across the board. On two separate occasions as the former Texas Tech coach, Kingsbury ran into Jones on the gridiron. The Red Raiders beat UTEP in 2014 and 2015, 30-26 and 69-20, respectively. But Jones had two impressive outings against Kingsbury's Red Raiders, rushing for a combined 283 yards and scoring three touchdowns over the two outings.
The downside is the salary cap numbers. The Cardinals have just $9 million in cap space, which is 15th in the league according to overthecap.com. If Arizona cuts certain players this offseason, they could get around $30 million freed up in cap space, according to Revenge of the Birds.
Plus, there's a chance that if Jones decides to go elsewhere, there could be a bidding war among NFL squads. The Dolphins, Chargers, Jets, Bills, Eagles and Texans are a shortlist of teams with questions about their running back moving forward. One of those teams could just as easily grab Jones.
But if UTEP's all-time leading rusher hooked up to play for his former college coach; and, if Jones had a chance to play alongside an up-and-comer like Murray, also a Texan-born product, it would be a treat for El Paso fans to watch.