In both of the mock drafts I did on the Green Bay Packers for the 2020 NFL draft, I had the team taking Jonathan Taylor in the first round. The Packers instead shocked many in the pro football world by selecting quarterback Jordan Love.
The Packers did take a running back in the second round when they selected AJ Dillon out of Boston College.
The reason I had Green Bay taking a running back early in the draft was how important the running game is in the overall success for the offensive strategy which the Packers utilize under head coach Matt LaFleur. I’m talking about the outside zone running scheme.
Yes, I know that the Packers have Aaron Jones, who had a fantastic year in 2019. Plus the Packers have a decent compliment to Jones in Jamaal Williams. Still, the Packers were ranked 15th in the NFL in rushing. Plus, both Jones and Williams are slated to become free agents after the 2020 season. Add to that, LaFleur told the media that he wanted to add a third running back to the mix via the draft.
If the outside zone scheme is really effective, the passing game will be that much better. And that will make quarterback Aaron Rodgers a happy camper, as the play-action passing game will really open up.
For instance, while LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, the team used the outside zone scheme as Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. The running game flourished due to the two-headed monster formed by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. In addition to that, so did the success of quarterback Matt Ryan, who was the NFL MVP in 2016.
In 2017, LaFleur became the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and he had to fix an offense which really struggled the year before.
In seven starts as a rookie in 2016, Jared Goff was 0-7 as a starter and had just five TD passes versus seven interceptions for 1,089 yards. That adds up to a paltry passer rating of 63.6.
But in 2017, under the guidance of LaFleur, Goff really took off, as he was 11-4 as a starter, plus threw 28 touchdown passes versus seven picks for 3,804 yards. Goff’s passer rating improved to a very nice 100.4 level.
Not only did LaFleur get Goff on the right track, but the Rams started using the skills of talented running back Todd Gurley much better in 2017 by using the outside zone running scheme.
In 2015, Gurley was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, but in 2016, things went south for the former Georgia Bulldog. In his second season, Gurley only rushed for 885 yards and his yards-per-carry average went down by over a yard and a half, as he only averaged 3.2 yards per rush.
But in 2017 under LaFleur, Gurley had a monster year, as he was named Offensive Player of the Year. Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards (4.7 average) and 13 TDs, plus caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six more scores.
In 2018, when LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, the offense struggled early, as quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered an elbow injury which would linger all season long.
Tennessee didn’t flash statistically under LaFleur (25th in total offense and 27th in scoring), but he figured out the best way to run his offense down the stretch. It led to five straight wins before the Titans were beaten by the Indianapolis Colts in the final game of the season, in a game which would see the winner get into the playoffs.
Knowing that he had an ailing Mariota dealing with elbow issues, LaFleur leaned on the running game for the last quarter of the 2018 season. Running back Derrick Henry became a force, as he rushed for 585 yards and seven touchdowns in four games to end the season.
Henry carried that momentum into 2019, as he was dominant, both in the regular season and postseason. In addition to that, look at how effective Ryan Tannehill was at quarterback for the Titans.
Which takes me to the selection of Dillon in the second round by the Packers on Friday night. If there is any running back that Dillon can be compared to, it’s Henry.
Like Henry was at Alabama, Dillon was a force at Boston College. In three years with the Eagles, Dillon rushed for 4,382 yards (5.2 yards per carry average) and scored 38 touchdowns.
Dillon was named first-team All-ACC three times at Boston College, plus was named third-team All-American in 2019.
NFL scout Chris Landry also named Dillon to his All-ACC squad, as well as naming him to the third-team on his All-American team.
Landry said this about Dillon before he did drills at the NFL Scouting Combine:
Boston College RB AJ Dillon is a feature runner with power, strength and underrated burst. Dillon measured in at 247 pounds for the combine, making him the heaviest back in Indianapolis. He finished out his Eagles career having taken 845 carries (including 300 or more carries in 2017 and 2019).
Dillon measured in at 6-foot 3/8 inches and 247 pounds and was actually down three pounds from his last listed weight at Boston College, but regardless, he weighed in as the heaviest running back in Indianapolis. Those 247 pounds, by the by, made for an identical match to Derrick Henry’s combine measurement. Dillon would obviously love for his pro career to unfold like that of King Henry and will look to impress in athletic testing this weekend, but keep in mind that Henry’s athleticism at such a weight is an outlier, not the norm.
Landry then said this about Dillon after his workout at the combine:
RB AJ Dillon recorded a vertical jump of 41 inches at the NFL Scouting Combine. We hesitate to invoke the name Derrick Henry when it comes to Dillon, but when it comes to a back performing in tests at size, the 6-foot, 247-pound Dillon (same weight as the Titans back) was putting in slightly better marks than those of King Henry on Friday. His 41-inch vertical jump was the best jump of any running back in Indianapolis — and four inches better than Henry’s 2016 jump — and his 4.53-second 40-yard dash just barely bettered Henry’s 4.54-second rumble from a few years back, while his broad jump went for 10-foot-11, one inch better than Henry’s. He was a clear winner from the day, at least in terms of some of the less agility-centered tests.
The bottom line is that the Packers can now utilize a running back like Dillon in short yardage situations, which was a problem for the team in 2019. Dillon is the type of back who can not only get you a first down in those situations, but also take it to the house.
The 6’0″, 247-pound Dillon is also the perfect type of back to lean on when Lambeau Field truly becomes the frozen tundra in December and January.
Dillon would be the thunder in the Green Bay backfield, while Jones would be the Lightning. Williams will have a role as well, to keep everyone fresh.
Expect to see the running game of the Packers to get much better in 2020, which will also help the effectiveness of Rodgers at quarterback. In terms of who No. 12 will throw to in 2020 besides Davante Adams, I’ll hold off on that discussion in another story.