AJ Dillon proving to be more than just ball-carrier

Packers running back is making “difficult catches look easy”

RB AJ Dillon

GREEN BAY – AJ Dillon has always had confidence in his pass-catching abilities.

Even when the statistics didn't necessarily bear it out.

While one of the most decorated running backs in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Dillon had just 21 receptions over three seasons in Boston College's run-heavy offense.

Ground production earned Dillon high marks from scouts in the pre-draft process, but after being selected in the second round by the Packers in 2020, his lack of collegiate catches was brought up…over…and over and over again.

"That's all I heard, especially when I got drafted and everybody wanted a receiver," said Dillon, laughing. "I keep receipts. I'm a nice guy and all but trust me I got the receipts. People weren't too pleased."

In two NFL seasons, perceptions have quickly changed.

Dillon not only led the Packers with 803 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season but also caught 34 of his 37 targets to finish the year as the team's fourth-leading pass-catcher.

Together, Dillon and former Pro Bowler Aaron Jones became only the fourth backfield combination in team history to feature two running backs who each had at least 1,000 total yards.

With more attention on the Packers' backfield this summer following Davante Adams' departure, Dillon has continued to show he has what it takes to be an all-around threat out of the backfield through the first week of training camp.

On Monday, for example, Dillon made one of the top offensive plays of the day when he adjusted to a pass down the seam from quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a move-the-ball team period.

"I feel like 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, and his pass-catching ability is really, really solid," Rodgers said.

"He's made difficult catches look easy over the last couple years and this training camp, and I couldn't be more proud of (number) 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."

Dillon brings it back to his challenging rookie year in 2020. Already positioned behind Jones and Jamaal Williams on the depth chart, Dillon then missed a month of the season due to COVID-19.

"You got Jamaal and you got Aaron, and 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."

Dillon boils it down to two fundamental principles – repetition and trust – that have enabled him to play faster when running routes out of the backfield.

He's had a good role model to learn from in Jones, whose own pass-catching took off after his rookie season in 2017. Since Head Coach Matt LaFleur was hired in 2019, Jones has averaged 49.3 catches, 406.3 yards and 3.7 receiving TDs per season.

As much of a bull as Dillon can be between the tackles, the 6-foot, 250-pound running back also understands the value of getting someone his size in space against the opposition.

"I'm having fun with it. I'm playing loose. I'm playing fast," Dillon said. "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."

The Packers have big plans for Jones and Dillon, with the development of the two-RB "Pony" package creating more opportunities to get the two on the field at the same time.

After combining with Jones for 2,306 total yards and 17 touchdowns last year, Dillon feels like the sky is the limit going into 2022.

"I definitely think we both have the potential and definitely are both capable of getting 1,000 on the ground and however many in the air," Dillon said. "But it's not anything that we're like, 'I need to do this or it's not a successful season.' We're all about the team first. Whatever's called, we'll go out there and do."

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