GREEN BAY, Wis. – At 250 pounds and with quads the size of redwoods, AJ Dillon is a running back.
Last season, he led the Green Bay Packers with 803 rushing yards. More than just a battering ram, Dillon emerged as one of the most reliable and effective pass-catching backs in the NFL. While they have vastly different styles, the dual-threat abilities of Dillon and co-pilot Aaron Jones are going to be a critical part of how the Packers adjust to life without Davante Adams.
“Let me just highlight the mayor of Door County,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said a few days ago. “When he came in here, he was a big back we expected to be able to run power really well. Of all the people we’ve had the last three years, he’s got to be on a very short list of guys who have improved so drastically.
“His pass-catching ability is really, really solid, and he’s made difficult catches look easy over the last couple years and this training camp. I couldn’t be more proud of ’28’ and his approach, the way that he’s handled not just being a player in this locker room, an ascending player, but a member of this community. AJ Dillon, he’s a Green Bay guy now.”
There’s a lot of things that go into being a “Green Bay guy.” Rodgers was alluding to doing the right things on and off the field. Dillon, who has embraced the area like few others over the years, has done that. But being a “Green Bay running back” means having to be, as Dillon called it during the offseason, an “APB” or all-purpose back. Dillon emerged as an APB last season, when he caught 34-of-37 targets for 313 yards.
Just how good is that? Of the 44 backs who were targeted at least 35 times, he ranked third in catch percentage and eighth in yards after the catch per catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
“For me, it was definitely an opportunity because I didn’t get the ball thrown to me at BC,” Dillon said of carrying the ball 845 times but catching only 21 passes at Boston College. “That’s just how our offense was. Here, you get the ball thrown to you constantly, all the time. We’re doing routes, you’re doing one-on-ones. So, the opportunity for you to get better is always there.”
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Dillon knew he had to get better to fit in Matt LaFleur’s offense. As a rookie second-round pick in 2020, Dillon was stuck behind all-purpose backs Jones and Jamaal Williams. Jones and Williams combined for 78 receptions; Dillon played only 97 snaps.
“They’re both playing at such a high level and they both can catch, they both can run routes,” Dillon said. “I’m like, ‘All right, this is what it takes to be successful in the league, go on and get your second contracts, and also to be on this team and play with ’12.’ Going into that next offseason, that was something I was working on.”
And continued to work on this past offseason. He’s been excellent during the first nine practices of training camp, whether it’s being an outlet receiver and grabbing the occasional seam shot during team drills or working against linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker during one-on-one periods.
“It’s just being more confident,” he continued. “Going out there, running those routes and doing it over and over, and then trusting my hands, trusting my body in the air and things like that. It’s just repetition and trust.”
With an unsettled group of receivers and potential injury issues on the offensive line, LaFleur and Rodgers figure to count on the running backs more than normal. That doesn’t mean simply handing the ball to Jones and Dillon and hoping they can churn out first down after first down. It also means mixing them in the passing game and letting them go to work against linebackers.
Dillon, who has an over/under rushing total of 750.5 yards at FanDuel Sportsbook, says he’s up to the challenge.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I’m still not 100 percent but the thing I’m most excited about is I feel myself having a lot more fun. I think back to my time at BC and I really wasn’t thinking about – you stop thinking about things when the game slows down. I know a great majority of the offense. I know a good majority of the protections and how things are going to play out.
“I’m having fun with it. I’m playing loose. I’m playing hard. Even though it might be a tenth of a second thing, ‘Oh, wait, should I catch it this way?’ That’s not going through my head. I’m just reacting the way I should. I guess that would be my biggest [thing] is getting to that point where I’m playing free, having fun, enjoying the whole process, the grind with my teammates and just playing loose.”