The Packers have an AJ Dillon problem. Here's what they can do about it
Entering 2023, the Packers believed their backfield had ample depth. But after back-to-back poor games by running back AJ Dillon, that assertion seems shaky at best.
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At the outset of the 2023 regular season, a consensus had formed about the Green Bay Packers. While new starting quarterback Jordan Love displayed enough promise during training camp and the preseason to warrant optimism for his long-term potential, most thought the new-look offense would spend months figuring itself out before finding stability.
Though not an unreasonable belief based on the information available at the time, the Packers have already blown past those expectations. The offense has scored 55 points in just two weeks while Love has thrown six touchdowns against zero interceptions. Thus far, the young signal-caller has made only one turnover-worthy throw, a dropped pick by A.J. Terrell during Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Entering Week 3, the impressive offensive showing has Green Bay rubbing elbows with the top teams in the NFL by expected points added per play.
The performance looks even stronger when considered in full context. Christian Watson, the Packers' No. 1 receiver and one of the NFL's true game-breaking deep threats, has yet to suit up for a game while No. 2 wideout Romeo Doubs has played on a pitch count due to injury. Star running back Aaron Jones sat out Sunday with a tweaked hamstring, further limiting the unit's explosiveness. Meanwhile, All-Pro tackle David Bakhtiari missed Week 2 while stud guard Elgton Jenkins dropped out before halftime, leaving the offensive line without its entire starting left side for most of that contest.
Yet, despite those considerable absences, the Packers offense has looked potent. Love in particular looked poised and currently leads the league in multiple traditional passing metrics. The unit should improve over time as Watson returns to the fold and Doubs regains full health. The timetable for Jones' return remains less clear, though the team never considered placing him on IR, a positive sign for his outlook. As for the offensive line, Bakhtiari's availability requires monitoring week-to-week and Jenkins reportedly has a strained MCL, but both should play again this season. Between those impending returns and the experience Love will accrue, the offense has a path toward even more gains in the coming weeks and months.
Still, one key contributor has not held up his end of the bargain: backup running back AJ Dillon. The 2020 second-round pick once looked like a true complement to Jones and a potential heir. But those days have long passed. Dillon has moved like a plodder for over a year now, hitting running lanes late and rarely breaking off big gains. The lack of explosiveness would raise eyebrows in any context. However, for a player with an expiring contract, his shortcomings have come under a harsh spotlight.
With Jones unavailable Sunday, Dillon took over as the Packers' lead back. Even at his best, he delivered the bare minimum both literally and figuratively.
"Certainly, I think there were a couple of runs that he seemed to be stumbling a little bit," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said Sunday. "But there were some other runs where I thought he did a great job of dropping his pads. It's never just one thing. It just depends on the play, how the play was blocked, if it was a good call versus whatever the look may be. There's enough blame, if you will, to all of us collectively."
While LaFleur took some arrows for his player, it appears increasingly unlikely that Dillon will develop into the type of running back that can pair effectively with Jones and form a dangerous one-two punch. In a full-on rebuild, that wouldn't matter. However, with Green Bay's offense seemingly ahead of schedule and the NFC North completely up for grabs, the need to shore up that part of the depth chart takes on heightened importance.
If the Packers indeed determine that their backfield needs an in-season upgrade, they won't lack for potential trade targets regardless of price point.