Training camp is less than two weeks away for the Green Bay Packers. As part of my preview, I will be highlighting all 91 players on the Packers roster as I make my way through each position group, examining what I’ve seen during the offseason programs, where things stand, expectations, and more. I’ll also be making a final roster prediction as well.
Next up are the running backs, one of the few positions on offense with ample experience and one that figures to be relied upon heavily.
If the Green Bay Packers offense is going to find success this season, it begins with having a strong run game to lean on. Without an effective run game, that will put Jordan Love and his young group of pass catchers behind the sticks and in obvious passing situations. On the flip side, success on the ground sets up play-action and puts the offense in manageable second and third-down situations, thus opening up the playbook for Matt LaFleur.
Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will handle the bulk of the offensive snaps, but one of the bigger positional battles that will be taking place this summer is for that third running back role. Outside of the regular responsibilities that a running back has within the offense, special teams also could play a key factor in this roster decision.
"“If all guys are running on all cylinders,” said running backs coach Ben Sirmans, “it may come down to which one of these guys is going to more beneficial for what we want to do offensively in situations and how their response is on special teams. So it’s going to be a real deal.”"
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Aaron Jones continues to be one of the more efficient running backs in football. He led the NFL in yards per rush last season with 5.3 yards per attempt, with the eighth most rushes of 10-plus yards. Jones remains very difficult to bring down as well, ranking 10th in average yards after contact and seventh in missed tackles forced.
What I hope to see from the Packers this season is more opportunities for Jones. In 2022, he had roughly 55% of the running back touches, while AJ Dillon had about 45%. To put it simply, Jones is a playmaker, and this Packers offense functions differently – in a good way – when he is picking up yards. This, of course, is dependent upon Jones staying healthy–there was a stretch of games late last season where Green Bay was very mindful of his snap count.
Specifically, where I would like to see Jones have more touches is in the red zone. Defenses often loaded the box inside the 20-yard line against the Green Bay Packers, making them throw the ball, but the passing game wasn’t good enough to shoulder that workload on its own. Not that the Packers want to be running into heavy fronts constantly, but at the end of the day, you need to get your playmakers the ball – and that’s Jones – and not let the defense dictate your play calls either.
One assumption about the 2023 version of this Packers offense is that they are going to run the ball a lot more without Aaron Rodgers. While there may be times when this is the case, I don’t expect the pendulum to shift all that drastically, either. This means that there will be a lot of targets in the passing game to be redistributed with losing Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, and Robert Tonyan. The current receivers and tight ends will help take on that challenge, but I could see Jones’ targets going up as well. Last season, Jones had 59 receptions at 6.7 yards per catch with five touchdowns.
One area where Jones will have to be better is with ball security. He led the team with five fumbles lost last season, one of which came at a crucial point in the Packers’ Week 18 win-or-go-home loss to Detroit.
This is an important season for Dillon. Not only because the Packers need a strong rushing attack to lean on, but he is entering a contract year and coming off a 2022 season that didn’t meet his expectations.
Dillon went from averaging 4.5 yards per rush in his first two seasons to just 4.1 this year, including averaging over 4.0 yards per attempt in just eight of the Packers’ 17 games last season. With almost the same number of carries as in 2021, Dillon forced eight fewer tackles and ranked 20th in average yards after contact after ranking seventh the year before.
At 247 pounds, an area of emphasis for Dillon this offseason has been focusing on shedding tacklers who are going low, which I’m guessing, is just about all of them, given his frame.
"“If people are going to tackle me low most of the time,” said Dillon to a fan on Twitter, “I’ve got to work on coming out of those. Knee drive and other techniques have been a huge focus for me this off-season and something I’m hoping on translating into this year on the field. I’m constantly growing and evolving as a player, one thing I can guarantee is as long as I play I won’t ever get complacent or satisfied with good enough. There is always room for improvement and things to work on.”"
Two things that were mentioned when discussing Jones apply to Dillon as well. The first is that he needs more red-zone touches for the reasons already mentioned. And second, I expect his targets in the passing game to increase as well. Dillon had 39 targets in 2022 and averaged 7.4 yards per catch, but he wasn’t nearly as efficient as he had been in 2021.
With Jones and Dillon shouldering the majority of the workload on offense at running back, special teams will likely be the primary way for the third running back to contribute. As noted above, running backs coach Ben Sirmans said that if the running backs are firing on all cylinders offensively, the player making the greater special teams impact could be the deciding factor.
Taylor was the Packers’ primary third running back in 2022, and that can largely be attributed to his special teams play. Taylor would play 121 special teams snaps in 2022, on several phases, and finished with the fourth-highest PFF grade on the team. This, again, could provide Taylor with a differentiator over Tyler Goodson, who needs to find a special teams role, and Lew Nichols, who has minimal special teams experience.
What’s different this year, however, compared to last summer, is that the top eight players in special teams snaps from 2022 are all returning (Taylor ranked 13th), as are the top 10 players in tackles, along with this being a unit that was greatly improved last season. For Taylor, this could make him more expandable, with his special teams contributions being more easily replaceable and him not bringing the same upside on offense as Goodson or Nichols. As of now, I see Taylor as the fifth running back option on the depth chart.
Goodson has an Aaron Jones-like play style with his burst, explosiveness, and ability to make tacklers miss. He can also be a factor in the passing game, not only from the backfield but lining up in the slot as well.
Last preseason, Goodson forced five missed tackles and, in the final two games, averaged 2.31 yards after contact with two runs of 10 or more yards. He also averaged 10.0 yards per reception as a pass catcher. Goodson, again, has been quite elusive during the recent offseason programs.
"“Tyler has done a nice job,” said Matt LaFleur. “And we’ve used him in a variety of different ways, whether it’s out as a receiver or in the backfield. He’s an explosive player, and he’s got really good hands. I think he’s a guy that really matured over the course of the year. Has a much better grasp of the expectations, what it takes to be a pro.”"
We’ve seen him take snaps as a return man on special teams, but with Keisean Nixon returning and the addition of Jayden Reed, Goodson will likely have to carve out a different role if he is going to contribute on special teams. However, at the end of the day, teams should want as many playmakers on their roster as they can get, and Goodson certainly appears to be just that.
When it comes to what the Packers look for at the running back position, Nichols checks each of those boxes. He has the college production, leading the NCAA in rushing during the 2021 season. He was also used often as a pass catcher, with 88 career targets, and has experience as a pass-blocker. At 220 pounds, Nichols brings a more physical play style to the running back position.
What Nichols doesn’t have from his time at Central Michigan is special teams experience, playing only two snaps, according to PFF. As already mentioned, the third running back’s ability to impact this phase of the game could be an important part of the final decision-making process.
With that said, Nichols is also a draft pick, and when it has come down to some final roster decisions, the Packers have often kept those players over others. A prime example of this occurred last season with the team rostering Jonathan Ford, even though many thought that both Chris Slayton and Jack Heflin outplayed him during the preseason. Ford would then be inactive on Sundays.
Not to be forgotten about at the running back position is Emanuel Wilson, who was signed earlier this offseason. Wilson finished his college career at DII Fort Valley State, where he averaged 5.7 yards per rush in 2021 and a massive 6.8 yards per attempt and almost 1,300 yards while finding the end zone 15 times in 2022. He does have some passing game experience, with 31 career catches, but he was utilized primarily as a ball carrier.
After that impressive 2022 season, Wilson was named the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year and a second-team All-American. Wilson’s ceiling as a rookie in 2022 is going to be making the practice squad in this crowded running back room.
Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, and Tyler Goodson
We know who the first two running backs on the roster will be, and honestly, like last season, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the Packers kept just those two on the initial 53-man roster with the league’s practice squad elevation rules. But for the time being, I will pick Goodson as the third option, and this is largely based on what I saw during the offseason programs. As I alluded to above, his explosiveness and ability to make defenders miss is evident, and I’m not sure how you keep someone with that playmaking potential off the roster.
Now, with that said, a lot can change once the pads come on, and Nichols’ well-rounded skill set, coupled with him being a draft pick, could very well put him ahead of Goodson by the end of summer. Along with being an effective ball carrier, LaFleur puts a premium on his running backs being able to impact the passing game and hold up in pass protection as well. These will be other deciding factors in this third running back battle.