Green Bay Packers

AJ Dillon's Future With the Packers Is On the Line

Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

After running backs Aaron Jones and Emanuel Wilson left with injuries during the Green Bay Packers’ game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, fellow running back A.J. Dillon told them, “I got you guys. I love you, and we’re going to find a way to get it done.” The Packers did just that, securing a 23-20 win.

After the game, Matt LaFleur discussed the injuries to Jones and Wilson. LaFleur was optimistic about Jones’ long-term status, a relief after the ominous sight of the RB1 sitting on the cart with a towel over his head. However, he expressed pessimism about the immediate availability of both players, saying, “We’re going to be a little bit short at the running back position, but that’s something we’ll figure out.”

That leaves Dillon as the only healthy running back on the active roster. He’s in a position where he’ll have to find a way to get it done in the running and passing game over the next couple of weeks. The Packers will undoubtedly make additions. They have already re-signed RB James Robinson to the practice squad, and they may elevate him and fellow practice squad back Ellis Merriweather for the next couple of games to occasionally spell Dillon. Additionally, Green Bay signed back Patrick Taylor to the active roster from the New England Patriots’ practice squad. Even with the likes of Taylor, Robinson, and Merriweather, I’d still expect the Packers to lean heavily on Dillon.

Green Bay’s rushing attack has been odd this season. To date, Dillon and Jones have averaged only 3.5 and 3.7 yards per rushing attempt, respectively, ranking 41st and 39th in the NFL. Jones’ hamstring injury, and now his knee injury, certainly have hampered his availability and explosiveness. However, the offensive line has been inconsistent at best in the run game this year, which hampered both backs’ progress.

So far this season, the Packers’ O-line rates 29th in the league in run-block win rate. They’ve also seen a significant decline in the run blocking, specifically at the guard position, where Royce Newman, Elgton Jenkins, and Jon Runyan Jr. have all declined in their PFF run-blocking grades. The inconsistency in making room for the ground attack has made it difficult to get in a running rhythm and stay ahead in down-and-distance.

However, in situations where the blocking has been in sync, we’ve seen the flashes from Dillon. Dusty Evely, a Packers film expert, did an excellent breakdown of Dillon’s 40-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers — Green Bay’s longest rushing play of the season. The play, an RPO, did a good job blending motion and pulling linemen to create a numbers advantage toward one side of the field. The exciting aspect of the play was that all of the Packers’ blockers executed their jobs effectively and in sync, a rarity for them this year. While the play benefitted from a crashing safety, creating a favorable angle for Dillon to extend the run, Dillon still executed well and took advantage of his assignment.

Beyond the run game, Dillon has been a solid contributor in pass blocking. With his 247-lb. frame, he’s often asked to stand in on pass protection and pick up blitzing players. He does it well. Here’s Dillon picking up LB Elandon Roberts against the Steelers:

Here’s Dillon against the Minnesota Vikings, where he has to decipher a more complex blitz look and ends up helping block two players — and keeps looking for work:

As a blocker, Dillon doesn’t stand back and wait for contact but does a good job initiating his blocks and utilizing his overwhelming physicality.

Dillon has struggled this year in having a consistent presence in the running game, but that’s not all on him. In the upcoming games, I’m sure the Packers will utilize end-arounds, wide receiver screens, and more along with Dillon to mimic a full rushing attack despite having a fairly bare cupboard. However, Dillon will still have his opportunities, and defenses will be planning for him as the primary back.

Heading into 2024 Dillon is set to be a free agent, while fellow running back Aaron Jones may be a cap casualty with his $17.7 million cap hit. If Dillon has success and recaptures some momentum, I could see the Packers prioritizing extending or re-signing him in the offseason. The running back market has been depressed in recent years. However, there’s likely common ground between the Packers, who need bodies in the running back room, and Dillon, who knows the system, loves Northeastern Wisconsin, and has been more effective than his numbers suggest this year.

A good case study for Dillon’s next contract may be old friend Jamaal Williams. He left the Packers during the 2021 free-agency cycle and signed a two-year, $6 million contract with the Detroit Lions. At the time, Williams, who was almost 26, came off a year where he rushed for 505 yards and had 236 receiving yards. Dillon will turn 26 this upcoming offseason and is on pace to likely beat both of those marks. I could see a contract coming in around a two-year, $7 million deal with rushing incentives, assuming he’d be the primary running back. Dillon’s performance over the next few weeks will go a long way in determining what his next deal looks like.

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