It’s time for the Packers to unleash RB A.J. Dillon. Here’s why

The Green Bay Packers surprised many when they selected Boston College running back A.J. Dillon with the 62nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. With running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams on expiring contracts and Jones set to earn top running back money in free agency that year, it was assumed by many that Dillon was drafted to be Jones’ replacement.

Instead, the Packers re-signed Jones and made Dillon their top backup in 2021. While it still feels like Dillon was a luxury pick and the Packers would have been better off using their 2020 second-round pick to address a position of need, he at least appears ready to take on a larger role this year and has a chance to show why he was highly regarded by general manager Brian Gutekunst and the Packers scouting department.

Through the early part of his second season, Dillon has been fairly quiet. From Weeks 1-3, he was used sparingly, earning five touches against the New Orleans Saints, six touches against the Detroit Lions and eight touches against the San Francisco 49ers, while averaging 4.8 yards per carry, 3.6 yards per carry and 3.0 yards per carry in those games, respectively. The blowout loss to the Saints in Week 1 probably reduced his workload somewhat, but he still didn’t get much work the following two weeks in closer games.

In Week 4 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dillon saw a huge spike in his usage as he received 16 touches (15 carries, 1 reception) compared to Jones’ 18. The former second-round pick made the most of his increased opportunities, compiling 97 total yards (81 rushing, 16 receiving). Dillon showed off his trademark power and contact balance, burst on a 25-yard breakaway run and averaged a robust 5.4 yards per carry. The offensive line did a good job of getting push and opening up holes, but Dillon did well to create yards after contact. For Week 4’s performance, Dillon was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded Packers offensive player, trailing only Randall Cobb (90.5) with an 84.8 game grade. In Week 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillon carried the ball eight times for 30 yards (3.8 YPC). He also had four receptions, 49 receiving yards and his first-career receiving touchdown.

So far this year, the Packers’ running game is off to a slow start. Part of that is due to offensive line injuries, but for an organization that has invested so much in their running backs and for an offense that is predicated on running to set up the passing game, this will need to improve.

After four weeks, the Packers ranked 24th in rushing yards per game with 92.5, tied for 24th in yards per carry with 3.6 and tied for 16th in rushing attempts with 104. Starting running back Aaron Jones averaged 3.7 yards per carry through the first four games, a far cry from his 5.5 season average in 2020. With starting left guard Elgton Jenkins potentially returning this week, the Packers could get a much-needed boost in the run game.

Regardless of who is blocking up front, the Packers need to get Dillon more involved in the offense going forward. When given a sizable workload against the Titans last year and Steelers and Bengals this year, he’s shown he can do some damage. He might not be the receiving threat that Jones is, but he’s looked comfortable as an outlet receiver this year and his ability to wear defenses down over the course of a game should be taken advantage of.

After all, he was a second-round pick. He should be able to contribute in a significant role in Year 2. Even with Jones as the lead back, the Packers should strive to get Dillon 10-15 touches each week depending on flow of the game and his effectiveness. If Weeks 4 and 5 were signs of what’s to come, he’s ready to handle a much larger workload.

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