Note: This is the second in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – For a man with merely 46 career rushes on his professional resume, second-year Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon issued a bold proclamation.
“I think we can be the best running back tandem in the NFL,” Dillon said during OTAs.
Talk is cheap, of course. With Aaron Jones, the Packers have one of the best running backs in the NFL. With Dillon, the Packers have … well, who knows?
Because of a bout with COVID that limited him to just one carry over a span of seven games and the presence of veteran Jamaal Williams, Dillon saw considerable playing time in only one game as a rookie. But, man, was it a game. In a late-season showdown against the Tennessee Titans, Dillon stole the show with 21 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns. It was a tantalizing look into the future.
With Williams off to Detroit in free agency, Jones and Dillon will headline the Packers’ backfield this season.
“You look at us and you see thunder and lightning, which absolutely we are,” Dillon said. “But the lightning guy, Aaron, he can also grind out some yards. And the thunder guy, myself, I’d like to say I can still beat some guys running away from them.”
NFL Network’s annual list of the league’s top 100 players included eight running backs. Using that as a starting point, could Jones and Dillon be the best in the NFL?
Here are the eight tandems, listed in NFL Network’s order of the top running backs:
Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (No. 4) and Khari Blasingame. In 21 career games, Blasingame has eight carries. Then again, does Henry even need a sidekick?
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New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (No. 14) and Latavius Murray. In his first seven seasons, Murray has rushed for 4,991 yards (4.2 average) and totaled 6,285 yards from scrimmage. He topped 1,000 rushing yards in 2015, the first of six consecutive seasons of at least 578 yards.
Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (No. 20) and Alexander Mattison. A third-round pick in 2019, Mattison has 896 rushing yards (4.6 average) and 1,103 total yards in 26 games. In three career games against Green Bay, he’s rushed 13 times for 83 yards (6.4 average) and caught four passes for 30 yards.
Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (No. 26) and Kareem Hunt. Hunt burst onto the scene as a rookie with a league-leading 1,327 rushing yards. The Chiefs released him in 2018 after he was caught on video kicking a woman. In three-and-a-half seasons (he was suspended for the first half of the 2019 season), Hunt has 3,171 rushing yards (4.6 average), 154 receptions and 4,593 total yards.
Green Bay’s Aaron Jones (No. 30) and AJ Dillon. According to Sports Info Solutions, of all running backs with at least 45 carries last season, Dillon was No. 1 with a broken-tackle rate of 26.1 percent.
Carolina’s Christian McCafrey (No. 44) and Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard was a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft.
Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs (No. 68) and Kenyan Drake. Drake’s always supposed to be the next big thing but it hasn’t happened. While he had a career-high 955 rushing yards last season for Arizona, he averaged a woeful 4.1 yards per touch. In five seasons, he’s rushed for 3,130 yards (4.5 average), caught 169 passes and tallied 4,374 total yards.
Jacksonville’s James Robinson (No. 100) and Carlos Hyde. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Hyde rushed for 1,070 yards for Houston in 2019. In his seven seasons, he’s rushed for 4,726 yards (4.1 average) and tallied 5,528 total yards.
It’s probably worth mentioning two NFC East tandems looking for their workhorse to have bounce-back seasons. In Dallas, it’s Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. In two seasons, Pollard has 890 rushing yards (4.8 average), 43 receptions and 1,190 total yards. In New York, it’s the Giants’ tandem of Saquon Barkley and Devontae Booker. In five seasons, Booker has 1,526 rushing yards, 122 receptions and 2,482 rushing yards.
Finally, Tampa Bay has Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard. All three have been No. 1 backs in their careers. Entering his fourth year, Jones is coming off a season of 978 yards, 28 receptions and 1,143 total yards. Entering his fifth year, Fournette has 2,998 rushing yards and 170 receptions. In 2019 with Jacksonville, he rushed for 1,152 yards and caught 76 passes. Entering his ninth year, Bernard has rushed for 3,697 yards, caught 342 passes and totaled 6,564 yards from scrimmage.
Based on track records, Cleveland’s Chubb-Hunt duo would be the rather clear-cut No. 1 tandem in the NFL, followed by New Orleans’ Kamara-Murray duo. However, if Dillon can match his 5.3-yard average from last season while getting Williams’ total of 119 carries, he’d rush for 631 yards this season. Paired with Jones, who is coming off a season of 1,104 yards, Dillon’s words could become reality.