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Why A.J. Dillon Is Emerging At Perfect Time For Packers

  • The Draft Network
  • November 18, 2021
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Running back is arguably the most underappreciated position in the NFL. Whether it’s the position’s valuation in the NFL draft or the debate over whether running backs are worthy of a big payday in free agency, there’s a general theory that starting quality players at the position can be acquired with a relatively modest investment.

That’s why it was something of a surprise when the Green Bay Packers signed Aaron Jones to a massive contract extension last offseason, one that’s scheduled to pay him $48 million over the next four years. Jones certainly earned his pay raise, but here we are just 11 weeks into his new deal and it’s worth asking whether the Packers made a mistake.

This isn’t to say Jones isn’t a fantastic player. He is. In fact, he’s one of the most explosive and exciting runners in the league. He’s run for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons and is among the NFL’s most prolific touchdown scorers; he entered 2021 with 30 total touchdowns over the last two years. He has seven touchdowns (three rushing, four receiving) so far this season, too.

So, what’s the problem with paying Jones? It’s simple: second-year running back A.J. Dillon (who the Packers picked in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft) is beginning to emerge as a potentially better option in Green Bay’s backfield—with two years remaining on his rookie contract after this season, Dillon fits the model of cheap, quality production at running back. Dillon will get his turn as the Packers’ feature back over the next week or more while Jones rehabs his sprained knee, and if he takes advantage of the increased workload, we could be witnessing a changing of the guard in Green Bay’s backfield.

Dillon has been heavily involved in the offense over the last few weeks anyway. He has 97 carries on the season—only 26 fewer than Jones—and has received more carries than Jones in two of the last three games. His 190 rushing yards over that span top Jones’ 137, as do his four touchdowns compared to just one for Jones.

Dillon’s emergence as a legitimate rushing and receiving threat has been a joy to watch. His physical profile—6-foot, 247 pounds—suggests he should be limited to banging out tough yards between the tackles, but his deceptive speed (he ran a 4.53 prior to the 2020 NFL Draft) has helped him break some big plays early in his career, including in Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks.

But don’t get it twisted: Dillon is nearly 250 pounds and he’s a load to bring to the ground. A dude whose legs are nicknamed Quadzilla and The Quadfather has lived up to the expectations that come along with his physique.

Dillon didn’t receive much fanfare as a draft prospect because, admittedly, his style of play can lull you to sleep. His feet aren’t overly quick and his lateral movements can appear lumbering, but it works to his advantage. His speed catches defenders off-guard and he’s been able to disprove the pre-draft narrative that he lacks creativity or enough wiggle to be a field-flipper in the pros. While big plays won’t be his calling card, he’s proven he can rip the long gain as effectively as he can lower his shoulder and bulldoze for those short yards. In a way, he’s changing the perception of his game much like Derrick Henry did early in his career with the Tennessee Titans when he proved he’s more than just a 250-pound back who’ll gain three yards and a cloud of dust.

No, Dillon won’t be the next coming of Henry, but that doesn’t mean he can’t emerge as a uniquely built running back who can inspire his teammates through tough running and timely big plays. And if he sets that kind of tone over the next couple of games, the Packers will regret allocating so much money to Jones instead of, say, wide receiver Davante Adams.

Maybe there’s a bigger plan in the works in Green Bay. It’s possible that the Packers knew at the time they signed Jones to his lucrative contract that they’ll be without Aaron Rodgers in 2022. If Rodgers leaves Titletown, having a two-headed monster like Jones and Dillon will be critically important in the development of a young quarterback like Jordan Love. 

Dillon’s stock is on the rise. It’s good news for a Packers offense as it prepares to enter the frigid winter months of playoff football, even if it exposes a questionable decision to pay Jones a contract that could come back to haunt them next offseason.

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