The loss of running back Jamaal Williams in free agency will be a difficult pill for the Green Bay Packers to swallow for one main reason: his contributions in the passing game. Determining whether Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Kylin Hill, or someone else can contribute as a receiver and blocker will likely be job number one for running backs coach Ben Sirmans in spring practices and training camp.
But when it comes to the run game, the Packers are almost certainly adding production by subtracting Williams from the equation and giving his carries to Dillon, the second-year pro out of Boston College. A look at those two players’ numbers before and after contact, as well as the overall trends of Matt LaFleur’s offense in those areas, will explain why.
McCarthy to LaFleur Transition
The Packers had some weird statistical oddities when looking at Mike McCarthy’s final season compared to Matt LaFleur’s first in 2019. One of the most surprising changes is that yards before contact per carry by running backs dropped from 2018 to 2019.
Between Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and Ty Montgomery (before he was shipped out following a catastrophic kickoff return fumble), the Packers’ backs averaged 2.71 YBC per carry in 2018. In 2019, with Jones and Williams handling almost the entire load, that number was 2.40. The 2020 running back unit was effectively the same at 2.42.
What changed? The Packers did have some different personnel on the offensive line, but Billy Turner taking over for Byron Bell at right guard should have been an upgrade — at least in theory. Elgton Jenkins stepping in for Lane Taylor would seemingly be the same. Instead, it may be a function of overall offensive scheme, as the Packers run more often under LaFleur. Running backs received just 282 carries in 2018, compared to 356 in 2019 and 371 in 2020.
One other notable item is that in McCarthy’s final year, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams had massive splits on their YBC/carry. Jones averaged 3.5, while Williams was at just 1.9. However, under LaFleur, the two backs have been almost equivalent in that number, with Jones having 2.4 and 2.5 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and Williams sitting at 2.5 and 2.3. AJ Dillon, meanwhile, averaged 2.2 last season in his relatively small sample size of 46 carries.
Under McCarthy, Jones’ yards before contact were strikingly better than Williams. But these consistent numbers suggest that LaFleur’s offense should generate a similar amount of yardage for a running back before contact, regardless of the runner’s innate abilities. Therefore, it is yards a back can create after contact that will distinguish backs from one another, and this is where the 2021 team may be able to improve upon the team’s rushing performance over the past two seasons.
Jamaal Williams’ Limitations
As discussed earlier, Williams did all of the little things well as a running back. He was an excellent blocker and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Those soft skills made him a valuable player, but one particular area stands out as a weakness: generating yards after contact.
In 2020, Jones had a tremendous season as a runner, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance. After his overall yards per carry average dipped from 5.5 in 2017 and 2018 down to 4.6 in 2019, he bounced back to 5.5 again in 2020, buoyed almost entirely by an improvement in his yards after contact measure. While his YBC/carry stayed within 0.15 yards, his YAC/carry jumped from 2.18 to 2.95, breaking off long runs with regularity.
Jamaal Williams, however, was the same back he has always been. In the last three years (the farthest back that this data goes on Pro-Football-Reference), Williams has averaged 1.9, 1.8, and 1.9 YAC/carry. So while Jones took a major step forward in his second year with LaFleur, Williams remained the same player: one who would push a pile a bit, but who rarely breaks tackles or creates significant yardage on his own.
Enter AJ Dillon, who lost a good chunk of his rookie season to COVID-19, but who had an impressive performance late in the season against the Tennessee Titans. In that game, his first and only contest with more than five carries as a rookie, Dillon recorded 21 rushing attempts for 124 total yards. But 91 of those yards came after contact, giving him a YAC/carry average of 4.3 for that game and putting him at 3.1 for the season, more than a full yard ahead of Williams.
While that is a small sample size, Dillon’s numbers in that one game far eclipse Williams’ best single-game performances. Williams has never averaged more than 4.0 YAC/carry, and only once has he posted better than 3.0 YAC/carry with more than six carries in that same game. (That was a 15-carrry, 95-yard contest against the Jets in 2018, when he averaged 3.9 YAC/carry).
So while Dillon’s 2020 comes with the small sample size caveat, he has already demonstrated better tackle-breaking and big-play ability in that one contest than Williams has in any of his 64 career contests.
Under LaFleur, Jones has received about twice the number of carries that Williams has seen. Maintaining that 2-to-1 ratio would put Jones around 220 and Dillon at about 110, with a few carries sprinkled in for an RB3 like Kylin Hill, Dexter Williams, or Patrick Taylor. But if LaFleur gives those carries to a player with much better YAC ability, the Packers would likely benefit significantly.
It is possible that Dillon’s 3.1 YAC/carry from 2020 is a bit inflated by that one big game, so for the sake of argument let’s say he ends up at about 2.5 instead. Combined with the consistent 2.5 YBC/carry that all of LaFleur’s backs have found over a substantial workload, that would make him a 5.0 yards per carry back overall — a vast improvement over Williams as a runner.
The Packers will still need to determine who will take Williams’ reps in the passing game. But in terms of the run, the Packers should be much better off with Dillon getting 100-plus carries instead of Williams.
Note: All advanced rushing stats are provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com.