There was some consternation around the initial release of the Green Bay Packers’ depth chart this week, in particular that rookie AJ Dillon did not beat out incumbent Jamaal Williams as the backup running back behind Aaron Jones. First, this is unquestionably true:
Took a few years of making mistakes but finally learned about a decade ago that these team-issued depth charts mean just about nothing.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) September 8, 2020
But second, there is no reason to be concerned about this for one important reason: because Williams isn’t really Aaron Jones’ backup. He plays a completely different and possibly more valuable position than Jones, and while the depth chart only has one line for RB, it really should have two.
(Note: This was paired with concern that Jordan Love is listed behind Tim Boyle, which also isn’t bad, but for completely different reasons.)
If you pay attention to the rest of the league, this becomes fairly obvious. Take the Patriots as an example and ask yourself whether you would ever refer to James White as “Sony Michel’s backup.” Of course you wouldn’t. Michel is their prototypical 2-down back/goal line back, and White is their pass-catcher/pass protector. Rex Burkhead, listed 3rd on the chart, is more White’s backup than Michel’s, though he can perform either role.
AJ Dillon isn’t competing with Williams; he’s competing with Jones, and as Jones is one of the best backs in the league it’s not surprising that he didn’t win that battle. Jones has, unfortunately, been somewhat injury-prone as a pro and so it does make sense to have a solid backup like Dillon should he be needed. It’s a bit odd then, that the team is purportedly working on extending Jones’ contract. That is odd not because Jones is bad, but because you can typically replace “runner” production in the draft and with UDFA-type players, as they did when they drafted Dillon in the second round. “Running” as a skill takes almost no time to develop, and rookie runners often break through right out of the gate. Jones has improved as a pass-catcher (especially down the field) and as a pass blocker, which is probably the biggest reason to put a premium on retaining him, but it’s an even bigger reason to focus on retaining Jamaal Williams.
Jamaal Williams - The Veteran Back
Williams isn’t flashy like Jones, he doesn’t hit big plays down the field like Jones, and he’s not really great when running the ball. What Williams does bring to the table are those skills you can’t get out of a college back. Aaron Jones, as previously mentioned, has made steady progress as a receiver and blocker, but it’s taken three years just to get him to “adequate.” Williams, on the other hand, is among the league’s best backs in pass protection, and one of the very best safety valve receivers, consistently ranking as one of the near the top in receiving DVOA and receiving success rate.
The college game is very different and most college backs focus on running the ball as their primary job. To the extent they participate in the passing game, it’s as a safety valve and not as a mature route-runner. Pass-blocking is rarely a major part of college development and it falls to NFL coaches to round rookies into shape in the passing game. If you are going to pay for a running back skill in free agency (or through a contract extension) it makes much more sense to target the Williams role than the Jones role, because those skills take time to develop and to master.
They’re also likely more important than simply “running the ball.” While Williams struggles as a runner and does occasionally hurt the team on short yardage, he is also essential for keeping Rodgers upright on 3rd-and-long situations (where he plays a disproportionate amount). And while Jones is the flashier receiver, Williams catches a much higher percentage of passes and turns more of those receptions into first downs. Williams does the little things well, and given the fact that the NFL is a passing league and that Matt LaFleur prefers players who can both block and contribute in the passing game, Williams is an excellent fit. Williams would also, most importantly, be much cheaper to retain.
Jones and Dillon will be Packers for a while, but Williams is a free agent at the end of the season and it’s expected that he’ll be moving on. If that happens, it will leave a bigger hole in the roster than most realize, and one that can’t necessarily be replaced cheaply or easily. Dillon is the backup for Aaron Jones. Neither of those two are currently capable of beating out Jamaal Williams in his role.