The Green Bay Packers made a huge investment in A.J. Dillon three years ago, drafting him in the second round when most pundits had him as a Day 3 pick at best. Dillon has been a solid player so far but not exactly worthy of such a high investment. This year, his tenure in Green Bay comes to an inflection point.
Dillon, 25, is still young, but he enters the final year of his rookie deal. And like many running backs, he has little margin for error to stay with the Packers long-term.
During his rookie year, Dillon was the third running back on the depth chart, behind veterans Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. The Packers selected Dillon because Jones and Williams would be free agents in 2021, and he barely played in his first year. But the Packers let Williams go in 2021, and he signed with the Detroit Lions. Still, the Packers decided to give Aaron Jones a $48 million, four-year extension. With Jones still producing at a high level, Dillon had a bigger role, but not as a full-time starter.
As the second option in a one-two punch, Dillon had a promising season, with 1,116 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. He was on pace to establish himself as a starting-level player, offering more in the passing game than anyone predicted before the draft.
However, his performance stopped rising last year, especially early in the season. By the end, good performances in the final part of the season helped make up most of the numbers, but he still finished up the year with 30 fewer rushing yards and 100 fewer receiving yards than the previous season. The most difficult aspect of the comparison is how Jones is more efficient. While Jones had 4.7 and 5.3 yards per carry in each of the last two years, Dillon had 4.3 and 4.1.
“This wasn’t the type of year and expectations that, not only he had for himself, but from what I had for him and what others in this building had for him,” said Packers running backs coach Ben Sirmans. “I think that he’s the type of person, at least from what he’s shown me, that he’s going to respond to that challenge and come out and have a much more productive year. And you saw a lot of great things in spurts, but that was just the problem, it was just in spurts. It wasn’t consistent, and that’s what our goal is.”
Last year, Dillon had 10.9 rushing attempts per game. Sometimes, this even felt too much because the Packers missed Jones every time he wasn’t on the field.
The problem is Jones is 28 now. Even though he’s had fewer carries than a full-time starter his age normally would, the Packers starter may start to feel the effects of all the hits he’s taken. Therefore, it is important for Green Bay to develop alternatives. But would they be comfortable rolling with Dillon as the starter?
Green Bay’s options don’t seem to be secure at the moment. Patrick Taylor was the third running back last year, and he was basically a special teamer. Tyler Goodson was a promising undrafted rookie in last year’s preseason and spent all season on the practice squad, so he also has a new opportunity. Additionally, there’s Lew Nichols III, who the Packers took in this year’s draft, and Emanuel Wilson, added this week as an undrafted rookie.
What would have to happen for Dillon to re-sign?
Dillon has been an average running back in his career, and he has to be more than that to stay in Green Bay beyond 2023. The first scenario in which he stays, and the ideal one, is if he plays at such a high level that the front office feels comfortable moving on from Jones. Perhaps they trade the older runner and give Dillon a contract extension. The running back market is cold, even worse than it was when Jones extended in 2021. However, the parties could find a decent middle ground. The Packers have shown a willingness to reward their own players.
Conversely, if Dillon suffers a downgrade in performance, there’s a possibility that he doesn’t find any decent offer anywhere else and goes back to Green Bay in a short-term, prove-it deal in 2024. In this scenario, he would probably stay as a backup.
If Dillon maintains the level he’s shown throughout his career, it will be a difficult middle-of-the-road to find an extension. He would probably be too expensive to keep as a backup and will find some other team willing to give him a starting job. However, he wouldn’t be as good for the Packers to be ready to move on from Jones.
It was always hard to justify such a high pick used on A.J. Dillon. He had good moments but hasn’t established himself as a true difference-making weapon. Jones has a new opportunity this year, but it might be his last one in Green Bay.