As Aaron Rodgers looks for new Packers pass-catchers, RBs AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones could join 50-50 club

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t sound too high on the Green Bay Packers’ young receivers this week, but it sure sounds like he believes in his running backs.

And not just as ball carriers, either.

He believes the combination of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon can do something never done before by a Packers’ running back duo when it comes to catches.

“I think 50 is very realistic,” Rodgers said when asked how many passes Jones could catch this season.

And then he doubled down.

“I think 50 for both those guys is realistic,” Rodgers added. “That’s three a game; I guess it’d be just under, we play 17 games now. I think that’s realistic, 50 passes, which would be a nice season.”

He made that statement in the same session with reporters during which he expressed frustration with some of the young pass-catchers over what he called “bad drops” and “bad routes.”

“We're going to play our best guys when the season starts,” Rodgers said. “And whoever those guys are, those guys are going to get the reps. It's the guys I trust the most and the guys the coaches trust the most.”

Dillon and Jones have met that prerequisite.

Jones topped the 50-catch mark last season; he caught 52 and missed two games because of separate knee injuries. Dillon caught a career-best 34 while playing in all 17 games.

But the Packers have never had two backs each with 50 receptions in the same season. The duo of Ahman Green and William Henderson combined for 108 catches in 2000, but Green had 73 and the fullback Henderson had 35.

Since 2000, there have been six occurrences in the NFL when two backs on the same team each had at least 50 catches in the same season, most recently on the 2017 New Orleans Saints with Alvin Kamara (81) and Mark Ingram II (58), according to ESPN Stats & Information. In fact, the Saints have three of the six occurrences.

Jones has no interest in stopping at 50. After some simple math and the realization that four catches per game would put him at 68, he agreed that 70 catches was not out of the question.

“I think that’s definitely possible,” said Jones, who has 183 career catches in 69 games over five seasons (2.7 per game). “When you put it like that, four a game, that’s definitely possible.”

Packers coach Matt LaFleur knows he must adjust some facets of the offense now that All-Pro receiver Davante Adams (and his 169 targets from last season) was traded to the Raiders during the offseason. Already, LaFleur has installed a variety of plays in training camp with both Dillon and Jones on the field together. That duo combined for 1,602 rushing yards last season (803 for Dillon on 187 carries and 799 for Jones on 171 carries).

“We’ve had them in multiple packages where they’re both in the backfield; we have a lot of stuff out of that,” Rodgers said. “We have runs to both of them, we have swing passes to them, we have screens, we have down-the-field stuff, we have action stuff, we have scat protection, we have six-man, seven-man protection stuff. There’s a lot in the offense for those two guys. We’ve got to get our best 11 on the field, and it seems like those two are both in the best 11.”

That Dillon has become a capable receiver seems like a surprise to everyone but Dillon. He caught only two passes as a rookie, following a three-year career at Boston College with only 21 total receptions.

“For me, it was definitely an opportunity because I didn’t get the ball thrown to me at BC,” Dillon said. “That’s just how our offense was. Here, you get the ball out, thrown to you constantly, all the time.”

As a rookie in 2020, Dillon watched Jones catch 47 passes and fellow running back Jamaal Williams catch 31. Williams left in free agency following that season, opening the door for Dillon to increase his role in 2021 – if he could catch.

“I’m like, ‘All right, this is what it takes to be successful in the league, go on and get your second contracts, and also to be on this team and play with '12' [Rodgers],’” Dillon said. “Going into that next offseason, that was something I was working on. Going into this offseason, my hands didn’t get bigger. It’s just being more confident. Going out there, running those routes and doing it over and over, and then trusting my hands, trusting my body in the air and things like that. It’s just repetition and trust.”

Throw in the uncertainty at receiver -- where Allen Lazard still has to prove he’s a WR1, where Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins must show they can stay healthy and where rookies Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure (plus second-year pro Amari Rodgers and third-year pro Juwann Winfree) still have to gain Rodgers’ trust -- and it could be a season in which the Packers have a handful of players who end up in the 40-60 catch range.

“Yeah, maybe,” Rodgers conceded. “But I expect there will be a couple that kind of break out from that and have really exceptional seasons. The exciting part is you don’t know who that’s going to be. I feel like ’13’ [Lazard] is going to be one of them, and after that, it will be interesting.”