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NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has evolved beyond the ‘big running back,’ an issue for the Packers and AJ Dillon

Dillon’s legs will never justify a second round pick.

Take a look at the photo below. The big guy is Derrick Henry. He went to the same school, Alabama, as the “small” guy on the left, Mark Ingram.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Ingram is a “normal sized” running back (215 pounds), and maybe even on the big side. Henry is a monstrous freak of nature, and the prototype for what a modern power back can bring to the table. The picture is striking, as is the memory of Henry carving up New England and Baltimore in the playoffs. Here’s the thing about that...

Ingram has almost certainly been the better player. He’s older, and entering his decline phase, but for the past 7 seasons, he averaged well over four yards per carry, and he’s more likely to be around five. Henry’s numbers on the ground are actually quite similar, but he can’t match Ingram’s production through the air. Henry is simply not involved in the passing game enough to really matter, having set a career high in 2019 with 18 receptions. Ingram caught 20+ balls at an 80% clip for 6 straight seasons, peaking with 58 in 2017. Henry is more explosive on a “yards per reception” basis, but this is chiefly due to the surprise factor when he actually does catch a pass.

Henry is fun to watch and he’s unquestionably a dominant physical force, but he’s also limited to early downs, and when the Chiefs focused on bottling him up in the AFC Championship game, they had no issues doing so. When they surged to a two-score lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Henry was effectively removed from the game. He touched the ball twice more, both receptions, for a combined minus-8 yards.

It’s difficult to be a big back in the modern NFL given how the game is structured. This is especially true if you can’t hold your own in the passing game as a blocker and receiver, which forces you off the field on 3rd downs. Running backs are already the least important players on offense, and when you start to place additional limitations on them, even that speck of value disappears pretty quickly.

AJ Dillon

Enter AJ Dillon, the very large, very fast Boston College product selected by the Packers with their second round (62nd overall) pick.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Dillon isn’t as tall as Henry, but he is as as heavy, weighing in at 247 at the combine, putting him in the 98th percentile of all running backs. Dillon is also an outstanding athlete for a man his size.

All of that said, it’s still hard to justify reaching for a running back that high. People on the internet have spent most of the week salivating over Dillon’s enormous legs, which I grant is a totally fine thing to do, but the Packers are not selling short shorts, and if his ceiling is Henry, that’s not really good enough.

Unfortunately, bigger backs don’t really work as featured runners in the modern game. In the post-merger era, there are only 10 backs over 245 pounds (min 200 carries) to post even one season of over 4.0 yards per carry, according to Pro Football Reference. They are:

  • Jamal Lewis (5x)
  • Derrick Henry (2x)
  • LaGarette Blount (1x)
  • Brandon Jacobs (2x)
  • Jerome Bettis (4x)
  • Eddie Lacy (2x)
  • Marion Butts (1x)
  • Craig Heyward (1x)
  • Christian Okoye (2x)
  • Natrone Means (1x)

And in the last decade, it’s just Henry, Blount, and Eddie Lacy, who entered the league at closer to 230 pounds but famously added some weight as his career went on. It’s also rare for any of these backs to excel in the passing game. A few of them have the occasional one-off good season, as Jamal Lewis did in 2002 and as Lacy did in 2014, but the norm for all of these guys is a minimal part of the passing game and a poor yards-per-reception average, combined with unimpressive catch percentage numbers.

The Packers spoke highly of Dillon’s potential as a pass-catcher, and the LaFleur offense is meant to feature bigger players out of the backfield in the passing game, but Dillon only caught 21 balls in his three years as a starter in college, and any optimism regarding his ability is pure projection. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Matt LaFleur didn’t exactly get the most out of Derrick Henry in the passing game when he was the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2018. Henry caught 15 balls for a paltry 99 yards while scat back Dion Lewis was second on the team with 59 receptions. Henry probably should have been more involved, as Lewis was only good for 6.8 yards per reception, but he wasn’t.

Eddie Lacy

Lacy is probably the best cautionary tale for Packer fans. He was a svelte 231 pounds at the combine, but still a bigger, power back, and he was pretty good for a short period of time. His 2014 season was one of the finest by a Packer running back ever, but fast forward one year and there was no difference at all between him and James Starks. If anything, Starks was more valuable in 2015 due to his superior catch rate. Bigger backs also take bigger hits, and Lacy would find himself out of the NFL just a few seasons later. Running backs have short shelf lives by their nature, but the more of a pounding you take, the shorter it tends to be.

Lacy is also a cautionary tale on drafting any running back, let alone a big back, too high. It’s accepted fact among the analytics set that running backs, no matter how good they are, just don’t add much value to a football team. Lacy was taken with the 61st pick in the 2013 NFL draft, two picks ahead of Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, eight picks ahead of current Chief/former Cardinal Tyrann Mathieu, and 15 picks ahead of Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen. In the second round, there are always good players available at more valuable positions, and three years from now, I assure you I will be writing a similar column about who was taken just after Dillon.

AJ Dillon is a limited player. His position limits his upside, his size makes hitting that upside a long shot, and even if he is the next Derrick Henry, there is a very good chance he just won’t last very long. The Packers clearly have a type, targeting bigger players as they work in more 21/12 personnel. Here, they went for perceived need instead of the best, most valuable player available. Hopefully it won’t cost them like it did last time.

If Travis Kelce is on the 2014 Packers, he’s an enormous difference maker. He also would have forced the team’s worst tight end off the roster. Who was that again?

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