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Don't Overlook AJ Dillon as Packers' Secret Weapon for 2021

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 20, 2021

Green Bay Packers' AJ Dillon runs a drill during an NFL football minicamp Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

Even if reigning MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers does return to the Green Bay Packers this summer, we'll inevitably continue to hear that Rodgers doesn't have the ultimate supporting cast. 

Aside from Rodgers himself, not a single Green Bay offensive starter was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and first-team All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams was the only second-round skill-position player who made a major impact for Rodgers in 2020. 

Nobody's questioning Adams or Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, but it's fair to wonder if Allen Lazard, 
Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Equanimeous St. Brown can provide enough in support of Adams at wide receiver, or if rookie third-round pick Amari Rodgers can make an immediate impact at that position, or if breakout tight end Robert Tonyan Jr. could be a one-year wonder. 

The Packers fell short of the Super Bowl even with Rodgers at his best in 2020, and now the offensive line faces several questions (left tackle David Bakhtiari is recovering from a torn ACL and All-Pro center Corey Linsley is gone), while little has changed with that core group of targets. 

However, that doesn't mean they can't expect significant improvements in-house, and the first name to consider in that regard is running back AJ Dillon

One of the highest-drafted offensive players on the Packers' roster, the 2020 second-round pick out of Boston College was limited to just 13.5 percent of Green Bay's offensive snaps while buried behind Jones and Jamaal Williams on the running back depth chart in 2020.

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But Williams is now a member of the Detroit Lions, and the powerful Dillon could have a tremendous chance to break out as a 23-year-old sophomore. 

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - DECEMBER 27: A.J. Dillon #28 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on December 27, 2020 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

"He's a lot more familiar with the offense, and definitely more familiar with his surroundings, both physically and mentally," Green Bay running backs coach Ben Sirmans said of Dillon recently, per Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. "And he also sees the opportunity that he has in front of him. 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."

It's easy to become naturally excited about Dillon quite simply because of how much he resembles reigning Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry. Henry—6'3" and 247 pounds—is built like a brick house, but the 6'0", 247-pound Dillon may be an even brickier house. 

At that size, it's incredible that he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, put up a 41-inch vertical and added a 131-inch broad jump at the scouting combine last year. 

And while Henry had a rather slow start to his career with the Tennessee Titans, Dillon still averaged a fantastic 5.3 yards per carry in extremely limited action as a rookie in 2020. Among running backs with at least 40 attempts, that ranked seventh in the NFL. 

Of course, nobody should expect anything close to a Henry-like workload for Dillon considering that the Packers re-signed Jones to a four-year, $48 million contract extension this offseason. But those words from Sirmans mean a lot, and the fact is you don't draft a back that high in this era without finding ways to use him relatively early. 

ASHWAUBENON, WISCONSIN - JUNE 09: Aaron Jones #33 of the Green Bay Packers works out during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field on June 09, 2021 in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Jones' best season in terms of yards per carry came when his own workload was diminished in 2018. He's a very different player from Dillon, and will continue to be a go-to target as a receiver out of the backfield even if his carries drop off in 2021. 

"I think we can be the best running back tandem in the NFL," Dillon said last month, according to Wilde. "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."

That versatility could also be critical at such a fragile position. 

ASHWAUBENON, WISCONSIN - JUNE 09: A.J. Dillon #28 of the Green Bay Packers works out during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field on June 09, 2021 in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Williams carried the ball 119 times last season, so it's not hard to envision a scenario in which both Jones and Dillon tote it between 150 and 200 times in 2021. Beyond that? The Packers can actually save a bunch of money by moving on from Jones on or beyond June 1, 2022, so a strong season from Dillon could put the team in an even better position beyond this year.

For now, his expected emergence could make the Packers' offense just a little more dynamic since Dillon packs much more of a punch than Williams (or almost any other back in the league).

And when we're talking about a team that went 13-3, scored a league-high 31.8 points per game and fell just short against the eventual Super Bowl champions in the playoffs, a change like that could be the difference between a Vince Lombardi Trophy and another January disappointment.

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.

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