Green Bay Packers: AJ Dillon Making an Impact in Passing Game

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 28: A.J. Dillon #28 of the Green Bay Packers signals a first down during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 28: A.J. Dillon #28 of the Green Bay Packers signals a first down during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

There were several reasons why many within the draft community were so hyper-critical — and that’s a nice way of putting it — of the Green Bay Packers’ selection of AJ Dillon in last year’s draft.

With many viewing the running back position as such a replaceable one, spending a second-round pick on a back was viewed as a wasted resource. At the time, Green Bay also still had both Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams, while selecting a running back with as little pass-catching experience as Dillon had in today’s NFL was another head-scratcher.

During his time at Boston College, Dillon was a prolific ball carrier with three seasons over 1,100 yards and two over 1,500, but he had just 21 total receptions during his career for 236 yards. Not to mention that when you take a look at Dillon’s 247-pound frame, that doesn’t exactly scream pass-catcher.

However, as Brian Gutekunst was quick to point out following that 2020 draft, his lack of experience as a pass-catcher was largely due to the offensive scheme that Boston College ran and what they asked Dillon to do–it wasn’t because he wasn’t capable as a receiver.

"“In our offense, there’s probably more room for his creativity than what he did at Boston College, and a lot more in the passing game,” Gutekunst said via Packers Wire after the 2020 Draft. “As we went through the process in the spring, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield for a man his size was something – again, he didn’t do a lot of it at Boston College – but it was attractive to us.”"

In this Matt LaFleur offense that strives to achieve the “illusion of complexity,” as he calls it, which essentially means running like-plays, or plays that begin similarly but have different wrinkles, along with running the same play from a variety of formations, running backs have to be effective pass catchers—it’s a requirement.

If the opposing defense isn’t worried about the running back in the passing game, that’s one less player that they need to be concerned with and they can focus their attention elsewhere–this, of course, makes their job easier. Also, being able to move the back around the formation and having that player able to affect the passing game can help keep a defense off-balance and guessing.

So given all of this, it again never made sense that the Green Bay Packers would select a running back that couldn’t be a factor in the passing game–we all should have seen this coming.

"“What surprised me is, you might not see it much during games, but you go to practice, and you see him running routes and see him catching the football. And he’s got real good hands,” said Packers college scout Mike Owens following the 2020 NFL Draft via Packers Wire. “His receiving game is actually further along than you might believe. That’s just an added element to his game. He does have pass-catching ability.”"

With Dillon’s role greatly expanding this season as he took over the RB2 responsibilities, we’ve seen his pass-catching abilities on full display, especially as of late, and he has been downright impressive.

In his 12 games this season, Dillon has been targeted 29 times and caught 27 of those passes — including several that have been off-target — for 261 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, among all running backs, Dillon ranks as one of the more effective receivers.

His 261 yards are the 16th most, and his 9.7 average is tied for ninth. Dillon also ranks eighth in YAC per catch, and seventh in yards per route run among running backs, according to PFF ($$).

"“Very proud of him,” Aaron Rodgers said following the Seattle game via SI. “He’s a great kid. He works really hard. He’s improved in all the areas that he needed to to become a complete back. And (he’s) smart, tough. He ran through unblocked guys on both of his touchdown runs, so, not much more you can say than that.”"

A complete back, indeed. Dillon has totaled 543 rushing yards this season, averaging 4.2 yards per rush, and his 27 receptions are the fourth most on the team. On top of that, he’s held up really well in pass protection picking up blitzes–just go back and watch last week’s game against Minnesota.

Many — including myself — were very quick to question the selection of Dillon, but in Year 2, he has become an integral part of this Green Bay Packers offense, both on the ground and through the air–which goes to show, just because the numbers aren’t eye-popping, doesn’t mean that the ability isn’t there.

"“You hate to say the sky’s the limit and put that type of pressure on a guy, but I definitely think he’s got the ability to be one of the better backs in this league,” RBs Coach Ben Sirmans said of Dillon via Forbes. “If that arrow just keeps pointing in the right direction.“For a guy his size that can make the cuts he can make, he’s a lot faster than what people think, and then when he drops his pads he can move people. He’s got good hands. When you combine all those different traits, usually that leads to a guy that’s going to be very productive down the road.”"