When you look at this high powered Green Bay offence, your eyes are drawn to the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, or the star wide receiver, or the pass-catching dynamo out of the backfield. However, sophomore star AJ Dillon might just prove to be the key to success for Green Bay this January.
The Packers drafted Dillon one round after selecting Jordan Love in the 2020 draft. Thus, Dillon’s selection flew under the radar a tad. Although, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst still received some criticism for drafting the bell-cow out of Boston College in the second round.
Overcoming draft skepticism
CBS gave the Packers’ selection of Dillon a C+. USA Today criticised the Love pick before adding ‘It got worse in the second round when the Packers reached for an old-school bruiser of a running back in Boston College’s Dillon’.
And EstablishTheRun’s Evan Silva commented, ‘LaFleur’s obsession with outdated offence influenced the team to severely overdraft two-down banger Dillon’.
It is understandable why so many ‘analysts’ were confused by the selection of Dillon. At the time of the pick, the Packers already had two studs in the backfield with Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams. However, come the Spring of 2020, both backs had one year left on their contract. Ultimately, the Packers would let Williams go, opting to pay Jones a large sum to remain in Green Bay.
After the 2020 draft, Gutekunst responded to his critics ‘I think Matt (LaFleur) certainly wants to run the ball… I think he’s talked to you guys repeatedly about how much he’d like to run the ball and have the pass work off of that.’
Gutekunst went on to rave about Dillon’s physical attributes. ‘AJ’s a big, bruising back with very, very good speed… It’s just God-gifted ability that blessed them with height, weight, speed and athleticism to do that, you know?’
Indeed, with his 6’0, 247lb build, Dillon does represent a change of pace to the Packers star tailback Aaron Jones. Dillon resembles the build of Saquon Barkley over an Alvin Kamara type. Although Dillon may be less dynamic than Jones, he presents a dangerous counter-punch to the light nickel and dime sub-packages the Packers often face.
Come the winter of 2021 and Gutekunst’s plan is coming to fruition.
Analysis of AJ Dillon in 2021
Dillon’s stats in 2021 are not jaw-dropping, nor are they enough to displace Aaron Jones as the Packers number one running back. However, to view Dillon’s numbers in a vacuum is misguided.
The Packers utilise Dillon as the team’s closer. As games draw on and defences get worn out by chasing Adams, Jones and Rodgers all game, LaFleur can call on Dillon to pound on teams. The best example of the Packers’ Dillon package came against both the Seahawks and the Rams at Lambeau Field in wintery conditions.
Against the Seahawks, Dillon rushed for 66 yards and two touchdowns, along with a pair of receptions for 62 yards in the passing game. Dillon scored both the Packers’ touchdowns, the first of which was a tone-setting demolition of all-pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Outside of being one of the best thumper’s in the NFL, Dillon has improved mightily in the passing game. Coming out of college, Dillon only amassed 21 receptions in the three years he was at Boston College. The trend continued into his rookie season, with the back only registering two receptions on the season. However, this season has seen Dillon record 27 receptions for 261 yards through 12 games.
Dillon’s emerging threat in the passing game only goes to show that players coming out of college are coachable. Players evolve and improve and do not remain the same. This isn’t John Madden Football. Dillon has worked on his game and is slowly becoming a player that defences have to account for in the passing game.
Dillon’s monster reception against Seattle was impressive as it showed his smarts to read the defensive front, recognise he was free, and escape out of the backfield and into the flat. The rest was just his ability as a runner with the ball in his hands.
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) November 18, 2021
In this clip against the Rams, Dillon’s route running and YAC abilities are on full display. Dillon may never evolve into an Austin Ekeler type but he can pose a real matchup problem for defences. A safety is too small to tackle him once the ball is in his hands, and a linebacker is too slow to keep up with him on routes.
And once he sniffs that endzone, it’s all but over.
It’s no surprise that Dillon’s play is improving as the weather is getting colder. His physical nature as a runner suits the snow and the cold. The Packers have proven time and time again that they can succeed when passing the ball, but in the play-offs, when the games count and the temperature drops, Matt LaFleur’s team have often come undone at the hands of two solid running games.
It’s well documented that the San Francisco 49ers embarrassed the Packers physically in 2019 by putting up close to 250 yards on the ground. The damage was not as bad a year later, but Leonard Fournette was vital to the Buccaneers success in the 2020 NFC Championship game.
Rodgers, Adams and LaFleur are talented and smart enough to win a Super Bowl on their own. But these age-old ideas, such as running the ball in January, are so ingrained into football coaching and football culture because they are true. If the Packers find a way to truly unlock AJ Dillon and become a malleable offence that can slice you through the air and pound you on the ground, they may finally get over the hill and deliver on all that promise.