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'It's coming:' The time is now for Packers RB AJ Dillon, NFL unicorn
Still wondering why the Packers drafted a running back so high in the draft last year? Don't. There aren't many humans on the planet like Dillon who's ready to leave a pile of bodies in his dust.
He holds the prized possession as close to the camera lens as he can. Right here, is a golden ticket. Right here, in the massive right hand of AJ Dillon on Zoom, is what’s known in the card game as a treasured “1 of 1.”
That is, it’s literally the only card of its kind.
It’s an “RPA,” too. A rookie card with both the patch of a jersey and an autograph.
He’s certain this card will be worth a ton one day because, right here, AJ Dillon is holding a card of… AJ Dillon. He got a killer deal on it. When the seller realized he was negotiating with the Green Bay Packers running back himself, he sold it to Dillon for only $400.
Now, it’s up to the back himself.
The value of this card will skyrocket if he takes over the league.
“That’s how you bet on yourself,” he says.
This isn’t the only Dillon card that Dillon owns, either. He acquires everything he can.
Maybe the rest of the world isn’t so sure what to make of this 6-foot, 247-pounder, but Dillon knows what’s coming. Maybe skeptics are still apoplectic over this 62nd overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, especially after the Packers went ahead and re-signed Aaron Jones this offseason anyways. The same fans tweeting their excitement at him when it appeared Jones was leaving Green Bay, he says, were wondering why in the hell this front office drafted him in the first place. That 124-yard, two-touchdown absolute snowplow of the Tennessee Titans? A forgotten memory.
Part of him gets it. Many people can only believe what they see and that was one game. We’ve rarely ever seen backs built like this, too.
He’s more than a mystery. He’s an NFL unicorn.
When we talked months ago, Dillon was frank in explaining how NFL teams are scared of the big back in general. They assume you’re fat and slow and bound for a life on third and 1. It didn’t matter that Dillon has 7.8 percent body fat or that he ran a 4.53 in the 40 at the Combine or that he spent an entire college career sprinting away from defenders in the open field. Most of America cried Who? and What? when he was drafted. And all along, Dillon knew the truth: He had zero business falling to No. 62. There are not many humans on the planet this large and this fast and, soon enough, everyone will believe.
Until then, he’ll have moments like… this.
Two days prior to this conversation, Dillon was walking down Newport Beach in the same Packers shirt he’s wearing today. A shirt that fits like schmedium even though it’s most certainly an XL. From the distance, he saw a group of five people walking toward him and as they got closer… and closer… their faces lit up. When paths crossed, the first two in the front said, “Go Pack Go!” And they kept walking. The next three in the back echoed, “Go Pack Go!” And they kept walking, too. None had a clue who Dillon was so, well, all Dillon could say back was, “Go Pack Go.” And then he kept walking.
Says Dillon: “This is the last year, people walk by and don’t know who I am.”
In 2021, he’ll make sure those Packers fans at Newport Beach know who the hell he is. In 2021, he’ll raise the value of his cards.
Everyone will see it and believe it.
“I feel there’s still more that I could show,” Dillon says. “I haven’t really had the opportunity to put it all on display. I do feel like that unicorn. I feel like people are going to be really excited to see what they get.”
To those scratching their scalp until it bleeds over the fact that the Packers invested both a premium pick and a premium contract into a position other teams have devalued? “Be patient,” Dillon says. He believes that Aaron Jones and himself are about to form the best duo in the NFL.
“If I can be patient, everybody else can be patient,” Dillon says. “That 1-2 punch is going to be different.”
And, OK, maybe he’s not quite a “1 of 1” on the field. There is one other unicorn. Derrick Henry is also big, also fast and also happens to be the back-to-back rushing champ. Still, Dillon is not shy. He knows he’s at least a 1 of 2. In terms of size and speed, he considers Henry an equal — the Combine numbers back him up — and, hey, he did completely outperform Henry at Lambeau Field.
“No shade or anything against him by any means,” Dillon says. “I’m just saying I’m very capable. I am, too, capable of being a big back. So, I just feel like it’s an easy label to throw: ‘The big back.’ They’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
“Or pleasantly disappointed,” he adds, “if they’re on another team.”
Despite all of this talent, despite all of this confidence, AJ Dillon was not even on the field as the Packers rampaged to a 13-3 record in the regular season. He often wasn’t even in the stadium. Covid-19 knocked the rookie out for a good month and a half and — for four days straight — one of the most fit players in the league experienced the worst possible symptoms imaginable.
Chills. Aches. Heart inflammation. Fever. “Intensive” sweating. Dillon experienced every severe symptom you can with the coronavirus, except for losing his sense of taste and smell. He’d set the heat in his home to 76 degrees and still feel like he was in an actual frozen tundra. Those four days were the worst. In the middle of the night, multiple times, Dillon climbed out of bed and stared at his bed sheets in awe. He says it looked like he just leapt out of a swimming pool. His gray sheets were completely drenched.
He’d rip them off, ring the sweat out over a sink and try to go back to sleep.
“It was funny to see the comments that, he has ‘Covid,’” says Dillion in air quotes. “No, I have Covid.
“It was absurd.”
He wasn’t bashing and bruising DBs. He was bedridden, feeble, forced to sit around and watch TV in his living room. Dillon assures all that if you name a show on Netflix, he’s seen it. Gamedays were particularly rough since Dillon can actually see Lambeau Field from his home. He vividly remembers being stuck on his couch — covered in every blanket he owned — as the Packers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-20.
“I could see the fireworks going off every time we scored,” Dillon says, “literally out of window, from my bed, while I’m sitting there, all bundled up.”
His condition was so bad that Dillon needed to see a specialist and thought he was done for the season. A second opinion essentially saved his season. Nonetheless, this all still felt like a crash landing.
The fact that the Packers could’ve shut Dillon down and few would’ve cared says everything you know about his rookie season.
Not that he’s “upset” about anything. Dillon understands why the Packers were quarantining him on the sideline even before Covid hit. As Marquez Valdes-Scantling detailed at length to Go Long, this offense is more complex than anyone realizes given how demanding this quarterback is. Both Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur surely trusted Jones and Jamaal Williams more than him. Mentally, they were on a different level. Even then, however, there’s a hint of frustration in his voice because Dillon had never been this dismissed like this before. This is someone accustomed to throwing an entire team on his back — he carried the ball 300 and 227 and 318 times the previous three seasons.
And in his seven games pre-Covid, Dillon never received more than five carries in a game.
Those fireworks just kept on blarin’ without him.
“I was definitely in a tough spot,” Dillon says. “I’ve never been not the No. 1 guy as long as I’ve played,” Dillon says. “Then, I was like, ‘Damn, I really can’t help out this team.’ I’m like, ‘Shit, what am I doing?’ I definitely was in a dark place for a little bit but I had a lot of support. I focused on being happy without all of the football stuff. So I feel that when I came out of it, I was in a really good mental headspace.”
Then, on Dec. 27, he got his shot.
As luck had it, in front of national TV audience, Dillon’s number was called repeatedly against none other than Derrick Henry and the Titans. He did not disappoint. On the snow-covered field, his full repertoire was on display. It took two, three, four tacklers to bring him down. On fourth and 1, he stuck his foot in the ground to freeze Adoree’ Jackson and race 30 yards to the end zone. Finally, he got a true feel for a defense. And he dominated. The back who said from Day 1 that he’s better than everyone else at his position in his class — Jonathan Taylor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, etc — looked it.
Henry, meanwhile, flopped.
“That was important for me to go up against him,” Dillon says. “Everybody wants to compare me to him so bad, well, here I am.”
Damn right it felt good. Dillon thought it’d be nice to get a couple first downs. Maybe even a touchdown. During the game, he says the only thought running through his mind was “Oh, shit, I’m in the game, getting the ball! Let’s continue this!” And once he had a chance to relax afterward — and saw that he had outdueled Henry — he was overwhelmed with more confidence.
This was the game that told Dillon, “I belong.”
Such a comparison may seem downright insane, right? Henry rushed for 1,540 yards in 2019 and 2,027 yards in 2020 with 33 touchdowns. Henry is the one who carried the Titans all the way to an AFC title game, embarrassing defenders every weekend. But as Dillon will point out himself, his 40 time (4.53 > 4.54), bench press (23 reps > 22 reps), vertical (41” > 37”) and broad jump (131” > 130”) were all slightly better than Henry at the NFL Combine. His hand is even an inch larger. Physically, he’s right there with the dude we all consider a Greek God.
And for one night — on the field — Dillon made it clear there’s another unicorn on the block.
Then, it was back to the bench, back to waiting, back to hearing he was a waste of a pick this offseason.
Dillon says he sincerely does not give a damn what anyone says about him which is actually why he reads everything. All tweets, all IG comments. Dillon finds a lot of the is criticism clever and comical and shares those links with his closest friends. “I’m all for it!” he says. And to any doubters still out there, anyone who thinks this comp is ridiculous, this is Dillon’s message.
“I would say, ‘Look at the one game where I did actually get a lot of reps,’” Dillon says. “Or the opportunities where I did get reps within the same amount of time. Everybody says, ‘Oh, he got this one carry here.’ You go out there. Let me throw you out and do one thing one time without getting warmed up or getting a feel for the game. Most positions, but especially running back is all about getting a feel, getting into that rhythm. You get into the rhythm. You hit a couple holes. You get tackled that one time and you get back up, that’s big. So I just feel like as I get more experience, as I get more opportunities, I’m going to start to produce more.”
Granted, the first running back who declares, “Give me the ball less!” should be immediately examined by a doctor. This is a common refrain. But we truly do see this “rhythm” effect — to a bone-rattling extreme — with Henry. For three hours straight, Henry inflicts pain on defenders. Henry is able to blend numbing strength with agility in the hole, knowing precisely how to lose which defenders. A juke here. A head bob there. A lowered shoulder. A stiff-arm. It’s a science. And it’s a science that Dillon knows he, too, can master over 10… 15… 20… 25 carries a game.
“Honestly, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do,” Dillon says. “There’s not a first down I can’t get. When I’m in that mode, I feel like if I get two carries I’ve got a first down. If not one. That’s how I feel. So you saw that in the Titans game. You saw that. I might get six yards and drag a couple guys. But then give it to me again. I’ll go right up the middle and get you the four.”
So if you hear anyone in sports media pushing the narrative that this quarterback NEEDS HELP NOW, please, move right along. Ignore such blather.
MVS was not the reason the Packers lost in the NFC Championship. He was spectacular.
Dillon was not the reason the Packers lost in the NFC Championship. He made the most of his back-to-back touches. On one 13-yard reception, he made a tough catch and spun around corner Carlton Davis. The next play, he ran right through linebacker Devin White for five yards. Two sharp moves against two of the best players on the best defense.
On Zoom, Dillon dips his shoulder reliving that run as if he knows what’ll happen once he gets to stack that run on top of another, and another, and another, in the future.
“When I get into a rhythm, I’m good,” he says. “I would just say, don’t judge somebody when they’re cold.”
When AJ Dillon does start doing King Henry things each Sunday — when everyone out there is ready to repent for their cynicism — the man to thank is Mike Owen. He’s the Packers’ northeast scout.
And honestly if King Dillon ever becomes a thing, Owen should be promoted immediately.
He was the one who watched Dillon closely all three years at Boston College. The school’s running backs coach then — Brian White — can still remember the day he first alerted Owen’s eyes to Dillon during a practice. The two had a great relationship. White actually coached Owen a decade earlier at Syracuse when he was the tight ends coach so the Packers scout knew he could trust his judgement. This wasn’t some random college coach spewing BS.
Right there, was a freshman running back he needed to watch.
“I just kept telling him, ‘This guy’s different,’” White says. “He’s one of these rare guys that comes around once every 15, 20 years. I really think AJ can have one of those special careers. He’ll do remarkable things that will really excite the Green Bay fan base.”
“Mike definitely connected those dots. He was very, very influential in getting him to the forefront.”
One 75-yard run vs. Louisville put Dillon on the map. But that single play — Dillon throwing poor Chucky Williams off of him — was no outlier. White could tell early on that once Dillon realized how powerful he truly was, anything was possible. As White explains, he isn’t your typical 250-pounder. He isn’t built like Jerome Bettis with a keg for a stomach, no, Dillon carries the majority of his weight in those tree-trunk thighs. White describes him as a “really thin-waisted guy with just ridiculous lower body strength.”
There is no spare tire, which makes for a strange sight.
Dillon’s upper body, the coach says, does not match his lower body.
“He’s a unicorn. It’s definitely rare,” adds White, who’s now at Colorado State. “He’s only going to get better. He’s a smart guy. He’s a very driven young man. He’s got ambition. He will explode in the NFL.”
White says those words as if it’s fact. Not chance. Fact.
“If he gets his opportunity, he will explode,” White repeats. “And he’ll be one of those marquee players in the NFL.”
Dillon can sense that moment coming, too, so he’s not stressing it. Out of nowhere, he brings up that decision to attend BC. Originally, Dillon committed to Michigan but flipped to BC for a better shot at playing time and to play two hours from home. People called him crazy then, yet it worked out. When Dillon left Boston College for the pros — Owen tracking him every step of the way, bringing his name up to anyone he could — he was the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Now, there are questions again with Jones re-signing.
Asked what the dream scenario is, Dillon grins and asks back, “My dream scenario?” Oh, that would be roughly 35 carries per game. In all seriousness, as much as he wants to get every carry he possibly can after being kept on ice as a rookie, Dillon believes head coach Matt LaFleur can strike a balance that allows both he and Jones to find that coveted rhythm. The two backs certainly bring totally different skill-sets to the party.
There’s no denying Jones’ breakaway speed. He has eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
Few players in the sport get 0 to 60 like him.
And Dillon cannot be relegated to two carries a game anymore. As he told Go Long before, one of his thighs could “feed a family of five.” But he also knows how to carry this weight, so he’s never had to shift to a low gear. When he works out, Dillon isn’t exactly blaring heavy metal music and doing one or two squats at a time to turn himself into a bodybuilder. He’s always been big. He incorporates agility drills into everything, too. Dillon keeps a mental “checklist” to constantly keep his legs in “stressful situations.”
In fact, Dillon hasn’t even tried a one-rep max in the squat since his senior year of high school at Lawrence Academy. Back then, as a high-schooler, he squatted 645 pounds.
“So,” Dillon says, “all this stuff I see about people squatting here and there, don’t tag me.”
Dillon knows full well he could turn all doubters into believers with one social-media post.
One five-second clip of a new one-rep max and, voila, his hype train would rev to maximum velocity. You’ve seen these before, of course. A player does something crazy in a weight room and everyone screams. Everyone immediately sprints the opposite direction as if they’ve seen a ghost. Unfortunately, Dillon concedes, this is the absolute last thing the Packers would like to see out of him right now. So, in the meantime, he’ll post a video of himself stepping out of a pool when he’s left out of a potential “Squat Off” competition between Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb. Dillon also says he may post something like Henry did, stiff-arming random objects around his home.
But if he did go for the squat? If he did have a full month to train? Dillon is 100 percent certain he’d hit 700 pounds.
“Seven hundred,” he says, “and some change.”
It’s one thing to see Dillon’s physique on TV and quite another to see it in-person.
Says White: “He’s a lean guy. He really is a lean guy, as crazy as that sounds, because he has those thighs and legs that are just insane.
“He is a genetic freak.”
Right now, Dillon is training in Orange County, Calif., with fellow classmate Jordan Love and other NFL pros such as Noah Fant. The Broncos tight end who caught 62 balls for 673 yards a year ago is teaching Dillon the intricacies of route running because that’s the next step to Dillon. He wants to be real threat in open space as a receiver, too.
Part of him seems to enjoy the mystery of his own game. As much as Dillon wants the ball — needs the ball — there’s something kind of cool about not knowing what your own ceiling even is.
“I’m not even scratching the surface,” Dillon says, “of where I’m going to be.
Until then, he’ll buy his own card because it never feels like gambling when you’re betting on yourself.
Dillon got into the hobby the way most did this past year. He saw sports cards selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and jumped on in. To illustrate, a Patrick Mahomes card sold for a cool $150,000 in January and a Luka Doncic card sold for $4.6 million a month ago. The one thing Dillon is most confident about in life is his own potential so he’s always searching and investing in himself. And any time Dillon runs across one of his own cards in a pack, he signs it, writes a little inscription on it, sticks the card into a protective case and stashes it away.
“Because I know what I’m going to do,” Dillon says. “I know in the future it’s going to be worth more.”
Many nights, you can find Dillon on the “Rated Rips” Instagram live stream. He’s even on a first-name basis with the regulars in there and, no, he’s not like the rest of us degenerates trying (and failing) to buy packs of cards at Target or Wal Mart, packs that fly off the shelf the instant they’re set down. Dillon forks over big bucks online for the expensive boxes full of packs. Whenever he runs across a valuable card, Dillon sends it into PSA to get it graded and then tries to resell it. (For those of you wondering how in the hell Dillon is getting his graded cards back so quickly while waiting a year for yours, he says with a smirk that he “knows a guy.”)
No doubt, Dillon has a long way to go to recoup the money lost from a brutal childhood gaffe. One day, young AJ was so mad at his Mom that he threw away all of his Pokemon cards. For some reason, he viewed trashing his own valuables as revenge. Just recently, Mom reminded him of this colossal miscalculation — Dillon knows now he essentially threw “tens of thousands of dollars” into the trash.
But there’s no need to shed any tears for him.
He’ll get that money back.
One player’s card Dillon says he is absolutely holding onto is Los Angeles Chargers quarterback, Justin Herbert. He has even texted Herbert that he wants him to sign a few. No way is he selling these cards yet — he’s sure Herbert will be a star.
Says Dillon: “He’ll have like three MVPs, three Super Bowls and then I’ll sell them.”
And no way is Dillon selling any Dillon cards. When he pulls one of his RCs, he first lets the moment sink in. It’s still crazy to see his own face on a card. Back when White was recruiting Dillon to BC, the coach says Dillon sent him a picture of his grade-school “card” and White still has it saved today in his phone.
The thighs have grown since then.
Now, Dillon is on a real card and Dillon can make something so small — 2 ½” by 3 ½” inches — so, so, so valuable one carry at a time. While White says all fans should do what they can to buy stock in Dillon, it’s also true Dillon’s on the hunt to buy the rarest of rare cards bearing his name. One more time, he reaches for that “1 of 1.” Ever so carefully, he removes the card from its sleeve and holds it up to the camera again.
You can see part of a stitched “G,” his autograph and, in the background, a massive smile across AJ Dillon’s face.
“I’m going to hold onto it,” Dillon says, “and I’m going to go out and eventually ball and get to that second contract and get some awards or something under my belt.
“This thing right here will be worth thousands.”
Want to read more Packers stories at Go Long? Here’s what you may have missed…
The Packers have a plan (it’s genius, too) (Dec. 4, 2020)
The Impossible Life of LeRoy Butler (Jan. 19, 2021)
Jamaal Williams is living his own anime (Jan. 21, 2021)
The Thread: As QB chaos grips NFL, Packers are A-OK (March 1, 2021)
Why you must believe in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (March 11, 2021)