The Green Bay Packers selected AJ Dillon in the second round of the 2020 draft for a reason. It’s fair to argue that a team shouldn’t take a running back so high in the modern NFL, but Green Bay’s logic was that a player of Dillon’s caliber and style could change how defenses approach them. Fortunately for the Packers, that came to fruition this season. In the last four games, Dillon’s emergence has helped the Packers to be a much more productive unit, even if the overall results aren’t great.
In the first nine games of the season, Dillon looked less explosive, and his efficiency dropped dramatically compared to what the Packers saw last year. The third-year running back had 98 attempts for 389 yards, 3.96 yards per carry, and one touchdown. But in the last four weeks, Dillon had 45 rushes for 235 yards, 5.22 per attempt, and two touchdowns. His yards after the catch numbers went from 2.98 to 3.48 per carry.
The Packers’ offense improved from 17.1 to 27.25 points per game in the same sample sizes. The EPA/rush went from -0.041 (17th in the NFL) to 0.024 (sixth).
Aaron Jones is a great running back in terms of efficiency per play, and he is generally much better than Dillon. However, his fast and light style doesn’t necessarily force defenses to play heavier boxes. And that’s exactly what happened to Dillon because of his strength.
When Watson stretches the field vertically and forces defenses to play light in the box, Dillon becomes a true weapon for the Packers offense. And that’s why his numbers got better once Watson started to impact the team.
What about the future?
There is also a financial component for the Packers to hope for Dillon’s rise to continue. Jones is great and is under contract through 2024. However, Green Bay designed the deal he signed in 2021 for him to play for two more years. Then, Jones’ performance and the Packers’ situation would determine their next moves.
Jones has played at an extremely high level. However, we still don’t know how the Packers will approach the future, with or without Aaron Rodgers. After restructuring Jones’ contract this year to clear cap space, the Packers will face a cap hit of $20 million in 2023. This is a heavy amount for a running back, even though Jones is the Packers’ most productive offensive weapon. If Jones is traded or cut, the number goes down to $9.6 million in dead money.
Depending on how the Packers plan the future and see the difference in performance between Jones and Dillon, there is a real possibility that Green Bay’s management will decide to move on from 33 and keep 28 as the full-time starter.
There is also Dillon’s contract situation. The Packers drafted him in the second round; therefore, they don’t have a fifth-year option on him. That means his contract runs through 2023, and he is already eligible for an extension next offseason. The last four games of this season may or may not define if he gets a new contract. However, they may affect how Green Bay sees his role for 2023, which will undoubtedly impact his value.
It might also factor into Green Bay’s plan to reinforce the position or not moving forward. Currently, the Packers only have Jones and Dillon on the active roster; Patrick Taylor and Tyler Goodson are on the practice squad. However, Green Bay has elevated Taylor to the 53-man roster during the season — three times for Taylor on gameday, the NFL-mandated limit. Therefore, he will probably not be promoted again until the end of the season because he can’t be elevated from the practice squad anymore.
Even though the Packers have been better at running the ball, which affects the entire structure of the offense Green Bay wants to run, they will face three difficult challenges after the bye.
The Los Angeles Rams are the best defense in EPA allowed per rush. The Miami Dolphins are 11th, and the Minnesota Vikings are ninth. The only relatively easy game for the Packers’ ground attack is the last one, against the Detroit Lions, who are 30th in EPA allowed per rush.