GREEN BAY — If Matt LaFleur truly does want an offense that more closely resembles that of his coaching BFF Kyle Shanahan — the San Francisco 49ers’ scheme that literally ran LaFleur’s Green Bay Packers off the field in the NFC Championship Game last January — then the Packers coach dropped the first hint of his intentions a month after that demoralizing loss.
“I think anytime you look at the running back position, it’s such a long season, and those guys take on a ton of punishment,” LaFleur explained in February during the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis when asked about the position manned by breakout star Aaron Jones and productive backup Jamaal Williams. “I think that’s one of the tougher positions to play in terms of physicality, and I think you always need multiple guys to get to that finish line.
“Certainly, we’d like to play one more game than we did last season, and we’re going to need not only those two guys, but I do think we’re going to need a third guy to put into that mix moving forward.”
LaFleur knew this from experience. The 49ers had finished the 2019 regular season with Raheem Mostert (137 carries, 772 yards), Matt Breida (123 carries, 623 yards) and Tevin Coleman (137 carries, 544 yards) having divvied up the carries before Mostert torched the Packers for 220 yards and four touchdowns to lead San Francisco to a Super Bowl LIV berth.
LaFleur, of course, got the third guy he wanted so badly in the second round of the draft in April, when general manager Brian Gutekunst picked bruising 247-pound Boston College running back AJ Dillon. As a result, LaFleur enters the 2020 season — if there is a 2020 season, of course, amid the uncertainty of COVID-19 — with a potentially three-headed monster in the backfield.
Nevertheless, LaFleur insisted in an ESPN Wisconsin interview near the end of the team’s virtual offseason program that Dillon joining forces with Jones and Williams doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust time in Green Bay this season.
“I think it’s week-to-week,” LaFleur said of an offensive emphasis. “You’re always trying to find the best way to move the football and to score points and, ultimately, win games. I thought there were some really good things that we did in the run game. I personally think it’s more (about) having plays that play off each other just so you keep the defense off-balance. Whether it’s running the ball 10 times in a game or running the ball 50 times in a game, it really doesn’t matter to me. It’s whatever you can do to help keep the defense off-balance and obviously keep your offense on the field and score points.
“That’s really what it comes down to, to me. (Adding Dillon) doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to run the ball (more). I definitely think that the more you can be unpredictable in those normal situations, meaning first- and second-down situations, then I think it presents more challenges to a defense.”
Jones and Williams certainly presented challenges to opposing defenses last year, when Jones tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns (19), broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier for the first time (1,084) and ranked eighth in the league in total yards from scrimmage (1,558) and Williams complemented him with production both on the ground (460 yards) and through the air (five touchdown catches).
How the roles shake out with Dillon in the mix remains to be seen, but Jones doesn’t expect Williams to cede any of his snaps without a fight.
“Jamaal rises to competition. Every day we go to practice, we bring the best out of each other,” Jones said. “Just because another person is coming in doesn’t mean he’s going to stop doing what he does. He’s going to continue to work. He’s going to continue to work on his craft, and continue to compete and get better and push the guys around him.”
Here’s a closer look at the running back position as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is scheduled to begin for the full roster on July 28:
33 Aaron Jones: 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, age 25, fourth year from UTEP.
30 Jamaal Williams: 6-0, 213, 25, fourth year from BYU.
28 AJ Dillon: 6-0, 247, 22, rookie from Boston College.
22 Dexter Williams: 5-11, 212, 23, second year from Notre Dame.
32 Tyler Ervin: 5-10, 192, 26, fifth year from San Jose State.
34 Damarea Crockett: 5-11, 224, 22, first year from Missouri.
27 Patrick Taylor: 6-2, 217, 22, rookie from Memphis.
45 Jordan Jones: 6-1, 255, 23, rookie from Prairie View A&M.
46 Elijah Wellman: 6-1, 241, 25, first year from West Virginia.
What does Jones do for an encore?
Before last season, Jones — at the time, a little-known fantasy football gem appreciated in Green Bay but unfamiliar to many other NFL fans — appeared on the nationally syndicated Rich Eisen Show and made a bold statement: His 2019 goal was to lead the NFL in touchdowns.
“When I said it, people were probably like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s not even a full-time starter,’” Jones admitted earlier this offseason. “And probably laughing.”
Jones, of course, got the last laugh. Healthy for a full season for the first time in his career, no one in the NFL scored more TDs last year — including playoffs — than Jones, who had 19 in the regular season (tied with Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey) and four more in the postseason. Set to hit free agency next spring, Jones will look to do even more in a contract year. But when asked what he does for an encore, his answer was team-centric.
“I want to win the Super Bowl. We were one game short,” Jones replied. “I mean, it’s not all about me, it’s about the team. We all feel like we came up one game short, so I feel like that’s all of our goals and I’m focused on our team’s main goal.”
On the rise
While Ervin’s primary gig is as a return man, LaFleur began integrating him into the offense as a versatile chess piece late in the year, and it appears the play-caller and coach would like to do more of that this year. Undersized and shifty, the Packers don’t have anyone else on their roster like him.
“He is a versatile guy,” LaFleur said. “We were able to play him a little bit more and more as the season progressed.”
Player to watch
Dillon’s college position coach, ex-University of Wisconsin assistant Brian White, calls him a “genetic freak,” and given what Dillon can do with his 247-pound muscular frame, it’s hard to argue. He carried the ball a whopping 845 times in his three years for the Eagles, yet he was supremely durable and believes his high college mileage is actually a benefit for him entering the pros.
“I would say this, and I would echo this to everybody across the Packers Nation: I’m good to go, healthy as can be,” Dillon said. “I had a lot of carries, but that just shows I can handle the workload, I can be the workhorse. Everybody can know that the ball’s coming to me and I can still churn out yards. I went to the combine, went through all the medical, and I didn’t get sent back for any extra X-rays or scans. I went there, performed and I’m still healthy, which is a blessing. I’m ready to just get to work.”
For playing time
Last year’s regular-season snap counts at running back broke down like this: Jones played 663 (61.5%), Jamaal Williams played 373 (34.6%), Ervin played 24 (2.2%), Tra Carson played 24 (2.2%) and Dexter Williams played 10 (0.9%).
Even with capable alternatives in Jamaal Williams and Dillon, the Packers coaches must decide how often they are willing to take Jones, a proven game-breaker, off the field.
“Certainly, Aaron was dynamic for us,” Gutekunst said. “I was impressed with his ability to stay healthy and stay out there. He certainly had more touches than he’s had. So that proved a lot to us. He’s such important part of what Matt’s trying to do on offense. He’s a versatile piece. You can move him all around. Really makes it tough on defenses. So, I’m really excited to see him in Year 2 of Matt’s offense.”