GREEN BAY — Given how dynamic of a running back tandem Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon could be together — and how badly the Green Bay Packers might need for them to carry the offensive load if the ongoing Aaron Rodgers saga carries into the regular season and young quarterback Jordan Love is prematurely pressed into starting duty — then they probably should come up with a better nickname than the oft-used one Dillon was advocating for this offseason.
“I think we can be the best running back tandem in the NFL,” Dillon proclaimed as the team’s organized team activity practices wrapped up in June. “You look at us and you see ‘Thunder and Lightning,’ which absolutely we are. But, you know, the ‘Lightning’ guy, Aaron, he can also grind out some yards. And the ‘Thunder’ guy, myself, I’d like to say I can still beat some guys running away from them.”
Dillon is already dealing with his own nickname conundrum — should he go by “The Quadfather” or “Quadzilla,” he asked his Twitter followers — but the more important challenge he faces is to elevate his game to be a consistent, reliable No. 2 option behind Jones, the way Jamaal Williams had been before leaving for the Detroit Lions in free agency.
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A second-round pick from Boston College, Dillon’s rookie season was essentially a washout thanks to being third on the depth chart behind Jones and Williams and a bout of COVID-19 that sidelined him for five games. He had a positive test come back after he played in the team’s Nov. 1 loss to Minnesota, and he wound up finishing the regular season having carried only 46 times for 242 yards (5.3-yard average) and two touchdowns, playing only 97 snaps (just 9.34% of the Packers’ offensive plays on the season).
But, Dillon did have one shining moment, when he outplayed Tennessee Titans 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry in a Dec. 27 matchup at Lambeau Field, carrying 21 times for 124 yards and both of his TDs in the Packers’ 40-14 victory.
“He’s a lot more familiar with the offense, and definitely more familiar with his surroundings, both physically and mentally. And he also sees the opportunity that he has in front of him,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said of Dillon. “I think a lot of times, that’s enough to really add an extra spark to a guy and how he goes about his business. He’s really excited about the opportunity, and I think that’s the biggest thing that I see with him — that he knows that we’re going to lean on him a lot more this year than we did last year.”
Jones, meanwhile, is a known commodity at this point, following back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons that led to a four-year, $48 million deal from the Packers just as Jones was embarking on free agency.
During his breakthrough season in 2019, he gained 1,084 yards on 236 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and added 474 more yards on 49 receptions. He scored 19 regular-season touchdowns — tied for the most in the league — and added 149 more total yards from scrimmage and three more TDs in postseason play. Last year, despite missing two games with a calf injury, he set a career high for rushing yards (1,104) and matched a career best in yards per carry (5.5).
“He is the epitome of a team player,” head coach Matt LaFleur said of Jones. “And we sure are lucky to have a guy as dynamic as he is.”
Here’s a closer look at the running back position as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is scheduled to begin in earnest with the first full-squad practice on July 28:
Can Aaron Jones keep this up?
Over the past two years, there have been plenty of NFL running backs who’ve gotten more attention than Jones. But there aren’t many who’ve been more economical with their productivity. With LaFleur preferring to use his No. 2 running back extensively — which should mean plenty of work for Dillon — Jones averaged 266.5 offensive touches per season and played an average of 601 offensive snaps. And yet, the only running back in the NFL to score more touchdowns than Jones’ 30 is Henry (35).
Jones’ new contract is structured in a way that it’s essentially a two-year, $20 million deal (with $13 million in guarantees). He also is dedicating the season and the rest of his NFL career to his late father, Alvin Sr., who died unexpectedly in April at age 57.
“I think we’ve got a great blend of a guy that’s more of your home-run hitter, accompanied with a guy who’s going to be physical but also has the ability to move the chains and create big plays,” Sirmans said of what Jones and Dillon could do together. “Obviously they’re a little bit different — I should say a lot different — in their styles, but at the end of the day, you look at what they can bring to the table, both of those guys are going to be able to produce.”
On the rise
For all the challenges Dillon faced last season, the impact COVID-19 had on him went beyond what he endured when he caught the virus and got significantly ill. The pandemic also forced the offseason program into the virtual realm, shortened training camp and wiped out all of preseason play. For Dillon, that made getting acclimated with LaFleur’s offense that much harder, and his grasp of the system was obvious to everyone this offseason — including Jones.
“You can see he’s a lot more comfortable,” Jones observed. “He has the playbook down and he’s just ready to go out there and fly around. I’m excited to suit up with him.”
Player to watch
An intriguing prospect who scarcely played during his senior year because of a team suspension before he decided to opt out for the remainder of the season, Hill wouldn’t have lasted until the seventh round had he matched his production from his junior season (1,350 yards rushing, 11 total touchdowns). But after limited opportunities early last season (15 carries, 58 yards), Hill was suspended by new Mississippi State coach Mike Leach (reportedly after an outburst following the previous week’s game against Kentucky) and Hill opted out after that.
That’s all history now, of course, and Hill believes he’s landed in the right place — and right system — despite his late draft selection.
“I feel like my skill set was perfect for the offense,” Hill said. “I feel that I’m more than just a runner. I feel like I’m very versatile, so the transition was pretty easy for me. It’s all about just catching the ball and making a play, do whatever I had to do to help my team win and be professional.”
No. 3 running back job
The Packers didn’t spend a second-round pick on Dillon a year ago simply because they knew Jones and Williams were free-agents-to-be. LaFleur had been very clear leading up to the draft that he wanted a third option at running back, and even though Dillon’s season was derailed by COVID-19, he clearly intended to use him even with Jones and Williams being the lead backs.
That would make finding a legitimate third option a priority for LaFleur in training camp, even though that No. 3 back will be coming from more humble draft beginnings than Dillon — whether it’s Hill (seventh round), Dexter Williams (2019 sixth-rounder) or Patrick Taylor (an undrafted free agent last year).
No one knows better than Jones — a fifth-round pick in 2017 who developed into an elite back — the old adage that it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. That’s been part of the message he’s been delivering to the youngsters around him in the running back room.
“It’s a lot of fun. You (reporters) say I’m a vet, (but) I feel like I’m just as young as them,” Jones said. “We all get along so well, and we’re just all teaching each other and we want the best for each other. We’ve got some really smart guys in that room, we’ve got some competitors. So, I’m excited. I’m going to try to bring out the best in all of them, because that’s going to make the team better. I’m going to continue to push all the backs — and myself as well.”