This April, for the first time in seven years, the Green Bay Packers invested in a running back before day three of the NFL Draft. By making AJ Dillon their second-round draft pick, the Packers sent up a massive signal flare to the rest of the NFL — and their fans — that the team values the running back position differently now than they did before.
Much of this is due to the new offense that head coach Matt LaFleur implemented upon his arrival for the 2019 season. With his scheme putting a bigger emphasis on play action and a bit of a heavier skew towards the run on early downs than under Mike McCarthy, the backs play a more important role now and it is important to have not only a diverse skill set in that room, but also to have more bodies. In a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, LaFleur broke down Dillon’s potential contributions as well as the variety of skill sets at his disposal.
“They do complement each other well; they all bring a different style to our team,” LaFleur said of his tailback group. “Overall, I think we’ve got a really versatile room.”
LaFleur mentioned nearly every player in the room by name, complimenting the veterans Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams first. After acknowledging Jones’ star turn from a year ago, LaFleur explained why he is excited about Williams’ contributions. “His ability to grind out tough yards — he’s definitely a change of pace from Aaron and he does a great job in pass protection.”
That area will be perhaps the biggest challenge for Dillon in getting on the field. LaFleur said that the offensive coaching staff has been giving the rookie a lot of mental reps in walkthroughs against this Packers defense, noting that Pettine’s group has “a lot of exotic looks” and should help him learn to adapt quickly. “One of the toughest things for young RBs when they come into this league is their ability to learn the protection scheme and learn the protections,” he said.
Interestingly, LaFleur also mentioned the afterthought in the 2019 running back room by name as well. “The guy I’m excited to see more is Dexter Williams,” he said, noting that “he’s a guy who’s been working really hard in the conditioning phases.” Williams narrowly made the opening-week active roster a year ago, but was passed up for snaps by veteran Tra Carson for the number two job when Jamaal Williams was banged up a few weeks into the year. Dexter’s rookie season was effectively a redshirt year, but the team will look to see what it has in him even as it seems unlikely that he will be able to land one of the top three positions on the depth chart.
Off the field, the Packers have added no new players to the reserve/COVID-19 list since placing five players there around the start of training camp. One likely reason for this is the quick turnaround time for the NFL’s testing program. LaFleur confirmed that the team tests the players in the morning, then ships those test samples off to a contracted laboratory in New Jersey to be analyzed. The team then receives the results the next day: “We get an update early in the morning before the guys get in the building.”
That quick turnaround time for these results allows the team to have timely feedback on players’ statuses and will hopefully help minimize any spread of the virus if a positive test does occur. Thankfully, though, LaFleur says his team has been taking appropriate precautions in their personal lives. “They’ve been acting responsibly outside of the building,” he said; “Knock on wood, hopefully we won’t have any positive cases come up.”
The newest member of the Packers’ roster is wideout Travis Fulgham, LaFleur fielded a question about the evaluation process for wide receivers and whether he and his staff tend to put a premium on run-blocking ability at that position. After chuckling, he acknowledged that “certainly we definitely put on the tape of them as route runners first and foremost, but (run blocking is) something philosophically we believe in.” He then complimented his wideout group, saying that the willingness to carry out that role can inspire teammates. “When you have guys that are doing those selfless things to help their teammates, that carries over to all facets of our team. I just think that toughness that comes from that room can permeate the rest of the team.”
Finally, LaFleur gave a small peek behind the curtain about how the team plans to get its young players some additional opportunities in training camp practices. With no preseason games to put reps on tape, these players need all the chances they can get on the field. LaFleur said that rookies and young players have been having extra meetings, up to two more hours per day than the veterans. He also mentioned that the allowed maximum time for practices increases as camp goes on, and that the staff has a plan for the later periods: “We’ll get the veterans out of there who we know what they can do, and we’ll get the young guys and have some post-practice scrimmage or periods for the young guys. Not just to get them experience but to help evaluate as well.”