Love or hate Green Bay’s draft, one point most can agree on is that the front office had a clear plan going into the NFL’s most highly anticipated annual event and followed through on their agenda of beefing up the ground game.
As a disciple of the Mike Shanahan-inspired outside zone that was passed on to his son, Kyle, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is committed to modifying a pass-first, finesse offense he inherited into a physical, run-heavy attack featuring several play-action opportunities.
In Year One of the LaFleur regime, the Packers improved their standing as a running team by ranking 15th overall in that area, up from the 23rd spot in 2018, while also scoring 4 more rushing touchdowns than the previous year (18 versus 14).
The 2019 season, moreover, marked the breakout of Aaron Jones, who produced 1,558 scrimmage yards and scored a combined 19 touchdowns. What was notable about No. 33’s performance was his workload increase in the latter part of the year in that he totaled 88 carries in the month of December, which far exceeded his usage in September, October and November. During that previous stretch, he averaged 49 totes per month.
Overall, the entire offense churned out more ground yards from weeks 10-17 (134 yards per game) in contrast to weeks 1-9 (95 yards per game).
But though the incremental progress was a step in the right direction, the Packers accomplishments paled in comparison to what Kyle Shanahan was cooking up out in San Francisco.
The 2019 49ers fielded the No. 2 rushing offense that paced the league in touchdowns (23) and ran the ball 86 more times than Green Bay.
The easy explanation for San Francisco’s success is that they’re simply equipped with superior personnel. And though anyone would be hard pressed to dispute that notion, there’s more that goes into their dominance via the ground attack than merely rostering better players.
Shanahan used pre-snap motion on 72 percent of his offense’s running plays, per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), the highest rate in the NFL. Similarly, the 49ers had a man in motion at the time of the snap 22 percent of the time, fifth best in the league.
Using motion before or during a play translates to more yards gained, according to SIS, as NFL teams averaged nearly a full yard per carry more (4.9 YPC versus 4.0 YPC) by incorporating movement. San Francisco’s production when putting players on the move was even more remarkable in that they averaged 5.4 yards per carry with motion compared to 4.3 yards per carry without it.
Other elements that turned the 49ers into a ground-and-pound juggernaut were indeed personnel related, as both fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle — arguably the two best athletes at their respective positions — were heavily used to help the offensive line open holes for a squadron of fleet-footed running backs.
By investing in a nearly 250-pound running back in A.J. Dillon, a versatile blocking tight end in Josiah Deguara and three new offensive linemen in the later rounds of this year’s draft, the Packers haven’t been subtle about their intentions of emulating the younger Shanahan.
In keeping the focus squarely on running backs, the Niners have shown that they place a high premium on speed, the kind that allows their ball carriers to break away from the opposition once the offensive line creates a crease large enough for the runner to exploit after his quick cutback.
Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both flashed sub 4.4 speed prior to entering the pro ranks. Recently signed undrafted free agent JaMycal Hasty, on the other hand, fell short of achieving a 4.4 in his 40-yard dash with a 4.55 time, but did register a staggering 39-inch vertical jump, which has traditionally been an indicator of a prospect’s explosiveness.
From a measurables standpoint, Dillon fit that 49ers profile by posting a 4.53 40 despite outweighing most other backs by 20-30 pounds or more. What’s more, he elevated 41 inches during his vertical jump.
Let’s zoom in on Dillon and his new backfield teammates in an early bid to evaluate the position and project which players will earn spots on the opening-week 53-man roster.
Green Bay’s unquestioned RB1 wasn’t only PFF’s fifth-ranked halfback in 2019, but what makes him a truly invaluable component is his role in the passing game. While Jones was limited to 26 receptions on 35 targets, per PFF, in his last season under Mike McCarthy, the 25-year-old game breaker saw added snaps lined up as an outside receiver and in the slot. The result was 49 receptions on 68 targets.
As a pure runner, Jones’ exceptional lateral quickness allows him to elude defenders at the line of scrimmage and in the open field. Though he hardly qualifies as a big back at 207 pounds, the fourth-year pro tied Cleveland’s Nick Chubb for the lead in broken tackles last year (32).
Odds of making the team: 100 Percent
As the team’s unrivaled dance master, Williams also excels in pass blocking, as evidenced by his second-best 87.3 PFF rating as a pass protector among running backs. In addition, the BYU product generally catches everything that’s thrown to him and recorded a career-best 86.7 percent catch rate in 2019.
The problem with Williams is he has very little juice as a ball carrier. While powerful, Mr. Boogie Woogie Dancing Shoes is too often caught from behind, as he lacks that breakaway speed that a Shanahan offense thrives on. Look for JWill to start the year as the No. 2 back in the offense’s rotation, but the dropoff from Jones is considerable enough that Dillon could supplant him in that role after the first month or sooner.
Odds of making the team: 90 percent
The imposing plow horse averaged a robust 5.2 yards per carry despite facing a steady diet of stacked boxes in the Atlantic Coast Conference and scored a total of 40 touchdowns in his three seasons as a Boston College Eagle.
Dillon is quick to the hole and light on his feet, as he projects to serve as Green Bay’s short-yardage/goal-line back who should also see lots of action late in games while offense looks to salt away the clock. And as for his lack of college production as a receiver, the Packers are confident in the second-round pick’s hands based on one scout’s observations of the young man’s pass-catching prowess in team practices.
How quickly Dillon picks up the nuances of blocking could very well determine just how soon he’ll become the RB2.
Odds of making the team: 100 percent
The 185-pound utility back’s value lies primarily in his abilities as a return man. His vision and instincts allow him to attack open creases and run to daylight. Ervin’s ball-security issues as a Houston Texan haven’t come back to haunt him in a Packers uniform to this point.
The fifth-year speedster earned some run in the regular offense toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs as backfield receiving target. Ervin will likely be used with greater frequency in that role, but don’t expect him to see many — if any — carries since he lacks the size to run through tackles or contribute as a blocker.
Odds of making the team: 85 percent
The odds are stacked against Williams making it out of the preseason unless he can distance himself from a disconcerting rookie campaign and earn the confidence of his coaching staff.
The highly regarded ball carrier seemed to fit LaFleur’s outside zone running scheme to a tee, with his dynamic cutting ability and the tantalizing burst he exhibited during his breakout senior year at Notre Dame. From the beginning, Williams never seemed comfortable operating in his new offense. Along with displaying hesitancy in hitting the hole, the ex-Golden Domer tested LaFluer’s patience in the preseason by dropping catchable balls and floundering as a pass blocker.
Odds of making the team: 25 percent
Patrick Taylor Jr.
The reviews are mixed on the undrafted rookie free agent. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein points out how the 6’2”, 217 pound upright runner lacks vision and usually requires defined lanes to gain positive yardage.
Others, such as Kyle Crabbs, laud the Memphis product for his bruising, physical style and ability to maintain balance through contact. The draft guru goes on to highlight Taylor’s big hands that he uses to snatch balls outside his frame.
The big senior may end up developing as a short-yardage weapon. At this point, however, it seems that he’s probably destined for the practice squad.
Odds of making the team: 25 percent
After brief stints with the Texans and Raiders, Crockett signed a futures contract with the Packers in January hooking up with the team during the season as a practice squad member.
The muscle-bound 224-pound slasher is quick, agile and can sidestep tacklers with an effective jumpcut, according to Crabbs. Just as impressive about Crockett is his willingness and ability to engage blockers as a pass protector.
Ball security issues and lack of production as a pass catcher make the former Missouri Bulldog an extreme longshot to stick with the Packers.
Odds of making the team: 5 percent