Any conversation about the Green Bay Packers offense begins with Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers, slowly moves to All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, and concludes with one of the NFL’s most prolific touchdowns scorers, running back Aaron Jones. But there’s a fourth skill player who’s beginning to earn his right to be included in that discussion: running back A.J. Dillon.
Dillon’s career with the Packers began on unstable ground. Green Bay’s decision to draft him in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft raised eyebrows at the time. After a 2019 season in which Jones scored 18 touchdowns, running back was hardly viewed as a high-ranking need on the Packers’ draft board, especially with calls for Green Bay to add a wide receiver to Rodgers’ arsenal of weapons.
Dillon’s NFL draft scouting report wasn’t exactly a consensus opinion, either. While there was a faction of draft analysts who valued his 250-pound frame as an asset comparable to Tennessee Titans unicorn Derrick Henry, there were others who simply weren’t impressed with the former Boston College star’s footwork and twitch.
The early returns didn’t bode well for Dillon. He had just eight carries through the first four weeks of his rookie season, and totaled just 23 carries halfway through the year before missing five games due to COVID-19.
But then it happened: Dillon’s breakout game. In Week 15, Dillon carried the ball a career-high 24 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns in an out-of-nowhere performance that thrust him into the debate about Green Bay’s top offensive weapons. He was trusted in the playoffs last year, too, earning nine carries for 44 yards in the Packers’ two postseason contests.
For Dillon, his rookie season wasn’t about where he started. It was all about that finish. And it was so impressive that there was a presumption the Packers would let Jones walk in free agency and hand the starting running back duties to Dillon this year. Instead, Green Bay signed Jones to a massive four-year, $48 million extension. It was obvious, once the ink dried, that the Packers envisioned a Thunder and Lightning scenario for 2021.
And that’s exactly what they’ve been getting from Jones and Dillon over the last few games.
Dillon’s workload this season was a bit lighter than expected during the first couple of weeks, with Week 1’s hiccup against the New Orleans Saints appearing more like an anomaly at this point. He totaled 15 carries through Green Bay’s first three games but his usage has gone way up over the last two weeks, including a season-high 15 carries for 81 yards in Green Bay’s win over the Steelers in Week 4.
In Week 5’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillon showcased his receiving chops with four catches for 49 yards. It’s now a part of his game that makes him more than just a between-the-tackles banger and, potentially, an even bigger part of the Packers’ offense moving forward.
"He's done a good job in the passing game, catching the ball and running after the catch,” Rodgers said of Dillon as a receiver this week. “He's just expanded his ability to play and be more than just a downhill winter running back for us, and I give him all the credit."
Dillon is averaging 4.37 yards per carry this season, compared to Jones’ 4.4. There isn’t much—if any—drop-off from Jones when Dillon is on the field. Remember: Dillon scorched a 4.53 40-yard dash (at nearly 250 pounds) in his run-up to the 2020 NFL Draft. Jones, while viewed as the more explosive player, ran a 4.56. There may not be anything Jones does that Dillon can’t do.
"He's a guy that we're going to have to continue to feed," LaFleur said of Dillon. "I love his attitude, his approach. Certainly, I think it's tough for any back when you're the lead dog in college and you're used to getting the bulk of the carries or the bulk of the touches, and you come to this level and it doesn't necessarily work out that way. But I think he's done just such a great job of staying positive, staying into it."
Even the analytics suggest Dillon warrants more touches. He’s earned a 76.0 season grade from Pro Football Focus, which is nearly identical to Jones’ 76.1. What’s notable about the PFF grades, however, is Dillon leads the Packers with a 78.0 rushing grade. Jones is second with a 72.6. Jones is a far-superior pass-protector at this point, though, and that’s a big factor teams value when splitting backfield reps.
As the 2021 season marches on, Dillon could—and should—become a much bigger part of the Packers’ game plan. The disappointment that surrounded Green Bay’s use of the 62nd pick in the 2020 draft on him is a distant memory, and at this rate, he could end up being one of the steals of that draft class.