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AJ Dillon looking to form 'best running back tandem in the NFL' with Aaron Jones

Packers’ second-round pick in 2020 has new role and new level of confidence

Running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon
Running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon

GREEN BAY – AJ Dillon came right out and said it.

"I think we can be the best running back tandem in the NFL," the Packers' second-year pro said of him and Aaron Jones.

There's certainly reason to be excited about the possibilities, now that Dillon has been elevated to the No. 2 role behind Jones following the free-agent departure of Jamaal Williams to Detroit.

Jones and Dillon sport two different body types – Jones at 5-foot-9, 208 pounds; Dillon at 6-0, 247 – and, consequently, different running styles defenses must prepare for. That said, Dillon emphasized there's more to each's game than the stereotypical thoughts based on size.

"You look at us and you see thunder and lightning, which absolutely we are," he said. "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's what coach (Ben) Sirmans preaches, being able to do it all and find a role on the team. I feel like we definitely embody that."

In speaking to the media following Wednesday's OTA practice at Clarke Hinkle Field, Dillon – wearing a "Quadfather" sweatshirt in homage to his renowned, massive thighs – mentioned the growth of his confidence several times.

After navigating a rookie season that had no OTAs or preseason games, a stint on the COVID-19 reserve list, and limited opportunities until late in the season, Dillon is in a different place now.

He's no longer "constantly going over exactly which play it is" and being "nervous in the huddle." He knows the offense and that he's in line for a much larger role in his second season.

His progress last year reached its peak with a breakout performance in Week 16 vs. Tennessee, when injuries in the backfield made him the featured guy in a key prime-time contest.

Despite just 24 NFL carries for 115 yards to his name going in, he answered the call with 21 rushes for 142 yards and two TDs, showing the breakaway speed he referenced with a 30-yard scoring run. He was just three weeks removed from coming off the COVID list, but in helping the Packers clinch the NFC North title he showed exactly why the team invested a second-round pick in him despite the presence of Jones and Williams already on the roster.

"He was out of the building there for a while when I think he was kind of getting into the groove," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said of the virus-related absence. "It set him back a little bit. It took him some time to come back from that, but he is a really intelligent guy that gives great effort on a daily basis, and we're just really excited about what the future holds for him."

LaFleur somewhat regretted not getting Dillon the ball more as a rookie, but with two starting-caliber veteran backs in front of him, it's just how things went.

The Packers were on the practice field Wednesday, June 2 during the offseason program.

The sporadic carries were a big adjustment for Dillon, who was a workhorse at Boston College (845 rushing attempts in three years), but he took the unfamiliar situation as an opportunity to learn from two proven pros and to make every chance count.

As dynamic as the Pro Bowler Jones is, with more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage the past two years (2,188 rushing, 829 receiving) and 30 touchdowns (25 rushing, five receiving), Dillon still won't come close to the workload from his college days.

But with a 17-game season on the horizon and a continued commitment to refine his pass-protection and pass-receiving skills, opportunities will arise. Dillon caught only 21 passes at Boston College because throwing the ball to the running back wasn't a staple of the offense, and he posted just three receptions as a rookie in his limited playing time.

In the two OTAs open to the media, Dillon has caught his share of passes out of the backfield, and expanding his game is yet another way he's gaining comfort at this level. It certainly isn't lost on him that Williams caught 70 passes over the last two years in LaFleur's offense to go with Jones' 96 receptions.

"There's still work to do there, but to be an all-purpose back is something you definitely need in this league and especially on this team," he said. "So I'm looking forward to meeting that criteria.

"I definitely know what I can contribute, so I'm just looking to build on top of that and have more games like that Tennessee game."

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