GREEN BAY, Wis. – At 250 pounds and quads the size of sequoias, AJ Dillon is a back race.
Last season, he led the Green Bay Packers in rushing yards for 803. More than just a battering ram, Dillon developed into one of the most reliable and effective passing defenders in the NFL. Though they have vastly different styles, Dillon and co-pilot Aaron Jones’ dual-threat skills will be a crucial 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. “Coming in here he was a great defender who we expected to be really good with power. Of all the people we’ve had in the last three years, he has to be on a very short list of people who have improved so drastically.
“His passing ability is really, really solid and he’s made difficult catches look easy over the last few years and at this training camp. I couldn’t be prouder of ’28’ and his approach, the way he deals with not just being a player in this dressing room, a player on the rise, but a member of this community. AJ Dillon, he’s a Green Bay guy now.”
There are many things that go into being a Green Bay Guy. Rodgers alluded to doing the right things on and off the field. Dillon, who has embraced the area like few others over the years, has. But being a “Green Bay running back” means being an “APB,” or all-purpose back, as Dillon called it offseason. Dillon became an APB last season when he hit 34 of 37 targets for 313 yards.
How good is that? Of the 44 defenders targeted at least 35 times, he ranked third in catch rate and eighth in yards by catch per catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
“It was definitely an opportunity for me because I didn’t get the ball thrown at BC,” said Dillon, who carried the ball 845 times but caught just 21 passes at Boston College. “That was our offense. Here you get constantly thrown the ball. We do routes, you do one-to-one. So the opportunity to get better is always there.”
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Dillon knew he had to get better to fit on Matt LaFleur’s offense. As a second-round rookie pick in 2020, Dillon was pinned behind all-purpose backs Jones and Jamaal Williams. Jones and Williams together for 78 receptions; Dillon only played 97 snaps.
“They both play at such a high level and they can both catch, they can both run routes,” Dillon said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s what it takes to be successful in the league, to go on and get your second contracts and also be on this team and play at 12. Going into the next off-season, that was something I worked on.”
And continued to work on this past offseason. He excelled in the first nine practices of training camp, whether as an outlet receiver and the occasional close-in shot during team practice, or in one-on-ones against linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker.
“It’s just more confident,” he continued. “Getting out there, running those distances and doing it over and over again, and then trusting my hands, trusting my body in the air and things like that. It’s just repetition and trust.”
With a choppy group of receivers and potential injury problems on the offensive line, LaFleur and Rodgers are relying on running backs more than usual. That doesn’t mean just handing the ball to Jones and Dillon and hoping they can produce first down after first down. It also means meddling them in the passing game and making them work against linebackers.
Dillon, who has a total of 750.5 yards over/under on FanDuel Sportsbook, says he’s up to the challenge.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I’m still not at 100 percent, but what makes me happiest is that I feel like I’m having a lot more fun. I think back to my time at BC and I really haven’t thought about it – 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 will play out.
“It’s fun. I play easy. i play fast Even though it might be a tenth of a second, ‘Oh wait, should I catch it like this?’ I can’t think of that. I’m only reacting as I should. I think that would be my biggest [thing] gets to the point where i play freely, have fun, enjoy the whole process, the grind with my teammates and just play easy.”