GREEN BAY – After amassing 4,382 rushing yards on 845 carries at Boston College, AJ Dillon had shown NFL scouts pretty much all there was to see on the ground.
In the passing game, however, there were some lingering questions about the 6-foot, 247-pound running back entering the 2020 NFL Draft after he caught just 21 passes in 35 collegiate games.
How are his hands? How well does he run routes? Does he produce in space? Is he good in pass pro?
Once Dillon arrived in Green Bay as a second-round pick, it didn't take long for Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur to see his new running back was more than just a between-the-tackles bulldozer.
"Although he didn't have the notoriety for having hands, I think we found out pretty early when we first got him a year ago that hey, 'Here's a big guy that can be a threat out of the backfield,'" said LaFleur on Monday.
That much was evident during Sunday's 25-22 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals, when Dillon caught four passes for a career-high 49 yards and his first NFL touchdown reception – all of which came during a 16-point second quarter for Green Bay.
These weren't just last-resort checkdowns, either. The first of Dillon's four receptions went for a 12-yard TD after he ran to the flat, flipped his hips and adjusted his body to pull down an Aaron Rodgers pass before finishing the play to the end zone.
Rodgers has praised Dillon several times this season for both his football acumen and the strides the second-year running back has made to become an every-down playmaker. The connection between the two, which moved Rodgers into fifth all-time in NFL history with 421 TD passes, was the culmination of that.
"I'm proud of the touchdown catch because I threw him a high hot one and we were just laughing about how he thought he was gonna get in kind of relatively easy and took a shot there," said Rodgers after the game.
"He's done a good job in the passing game, catching the ball and running after the catch. He's just expanded his ability to play and be more than just a downhill winter running back for us, and I give him all the credit."
Dillon showed definite signs of promise despite a challenging rookie season that included a five-week stint on the COVID-19/reserve list. He had a breakout performance against Tennessee in Week 16, racking up 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a dominant 40-14 win over the Titans.
Working in concert with Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, Dillon has had more opportunities to display the breadth of his skills this year, whether it's in third-down pass protection or catching passes out of the backfield.
Shortly after his touchdown Sunday, Dillon caught another pass from Rodgers on a similar route design that he turned into a 24-yard gain down to the Cincinnati 35. The play keyed the Packers' second touchdown-producing series of the game, with Rodgers finding Davante Adams on an end-zone fade to put the Packers ahead 16-7 at the time.
Of course, Dillon still packs a punch on the ground, too. He led the Packers with 15 carries for 81 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 4 before gaining another 30 rushing yards in Cincinnati. Together, Jones and Dillon finished with 188 total yards on 30 touches against the Bengals.
In reviewing the game with the Green Bay media corps on Monday, LaFleur was pleased with how Dillon performed but lamented the fact he only had 12 touches on Sunday.
"He's a guy that we're going to have to continue to feed," LaFleur said. "I love his attitude, his approach. Certainly I think it's tough for any back when you're the lead dog in college and you're used to getting the bulk of the carries or the bulk of the touches, and you come to this level and it doesn't necessarily work out that way. But I think he's done just such a great job of staying positive, staying into it."
Pass-catching is a critical part of LaFleur's offense. Last season, Jones and Jamaal Williams caught a combined 78 passes for 591 yards and three touchdowns.
After Williams departed in free agency to Detroit, Dillon has stepped up and been a perfect complement to Jones' slashing style, as the two have combined for 695 total yards and six TDs through the team's first five games.
The Packers have a lot of mouths to feed on offense, including All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, but they want to get both Jones and Dillon involved as much as possible in a unit featuring a plethora of playmakers.
"When you have the lightning and the thunder with those two guys, it's a great changeup and mix up with both of them," said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett last week. "It's one of those things you love getting them that many touches and get the ball into their hands. At the same time, we want to be sure everybody has to defend everyone across the field."