Packers 2024 training camp preview: Running backs

By: Paul Bretl 7/10/24

With Green Bay Packers training camp less than two weeks away, I’ll be doing a position-by-position preview. Next up are the running backs.

If you missed any of the previous position previews, you can find them below:


Roster: Josh Jacobs, AJ Dillon, Marshawn Lloyd, Emanuel Wilson, Jarveon Howard, Ellis Merriweather

Jacobs knows leadership role must be earned: Although Josh Jacobs is a former All-Pro, NFL rushing leader, and team captain for the Raiders, those accolades are just that, accolades, even though they are impressive ones. His new teammates didn’t see the work that went into playing at that high level or what it took to earn the respect of his former teammates.

Jacobs wants to be a leader on this young Packers team but knows that is an honor that’s earned and not just handed out, regardless of what a player has done at their previous stops. So, as Jacobs nursed a hamstring injury during voluntary OTAs, was it a requirement that he be on the practice field, or was doing so a prerequisite for a successful season? Not really. But Jacobs is out to prove that he has the right mentality and work ethic to be a leader.

“Yeah, I do,” said Jacobs when asked if he needs to be on the practice field. “Because these guys haven’t seen me on the day to day. Sometimes you see the end result, but you don’t see the work it takes to get there. Like I said, trying to be a leader on this team with this young group, and I feel like you’ve got to show and prove a certain mentality, certain demeanor and certain work ethic, for a lot of guys that want to take that next step. Especially with being there before, a lot of guys don’t really know how to do that.

“I tell people all the time, having Davante Adams come to the Raiders was the best thing for me, because I seen a player be great, and I seen a player be great on a day to day basis, so for me, that’s what I try to bring.”

Jacobs looking to bounce back: Just one season after being the NFL’s rushing leader in 2022 when Jacobs totaled 1,653 yards on the ground, his production dipped last season. Jacobs finished 2023 with 805 yards at only 3.5 yards per attempt.

As is often the case, there were several factors in play that contributed to his down year. One of which was that Jacobs dealt with injuries, appearing in only 13 games. Jacobs’ offseason last year was also outside of the norm, as he held out during training camp after being franchise-tagged, with a reworked deal not getting done until August 26th. In addition to all of that, the Raiders’ offense could never gain consistent traction either.

Fully healthy this offseason, along with having his contract situation in order, gives Jacobs a leg up compared to this time last year. But the added help around him in the Packers’ offense also contributes to what hopefully becomes a bounce-back season.

Behind the Packers’ offensive line, Green Bay ranked top-10 in yards per carry as a team last season. On top of that, the potential that this Packers’ passing game has with Jordan Love under center and the playmakers at receiver and tight end around him could result in fewer eight-man boxes that Jacobs will have to contend with.

“It’s just so special when you got a guy like Jordan Love back there, and you can’t really just load the box every play, and you make defenses decide what they want to stop,” Jacobs recently said in an interview with NFL Network. “I think that’s going to be the biggest help for me this year.”

There is also something to be said for playing in Matt LaFleur’s offense, which keeps defenses off-balanced through a variety of looks and provides the running back position with one-on-one opportunities.

“The thing that I like the most is how diverse it is—especially for me,” said Jacobs of LaFleur’s offense. “Like, we can line up wide, we can do dual backs, they have certain packages of personnel that allow me to win, put me in space and be able to win in space. And as a running back that’s all you ask for, get your 1-on-1 matchups and that’s where you can show how special you are.”

Jacobs’ impact on the passing game: As we all know, Jacobs can handle a heavy workload as a ball carrier, but he also brings a natural pass-catching ability to the running back position as well. Over five seasons with the Raiders, he was targeted in the passing game 249 times, and as Jacobs told Matt LaFleur when he first arrived to Green Bay, he believes he has more to offer in that regard.

“I was talking to (LaFleur) about that actually and I was telling him I feel like I want to catch it a little bit more,” Jacobs said. “I feel like I didn’t get to show that as much as I would have liked. So, that’s definitely something in the conversations we had. I know the schemes out here, they do a lot of outside-zone running. I think it just fits me, man. I can’t wait to get in and feel it out and see where I fit in. But also try to leave my mark on it, too.”

Beyond the prerequisite of making plays as a ball carrier, the running back’s ability to not only impact the passing game but be moved around the formation is an important element of LaFleur’s offense as it can create mismatches for the running back to exploit, along with one-on-one opportunities in space, where Jacobs has excelled. During his All-Pro 2022 season, he ranked 11th in average yards after contact and first in missed tackles forced.

Coming out of college, Lance Zierlein of wrote that Jacobs has the “ability to track the ball like a receiver.” So, in addition to Jacobs seeing more targets than he did with the Raiders, the real difference may come with what he’s asked to do in the passing game, specifically lining up from the slot more often and running a greater variety of routes.

Don’t forget about AJ Dillon: While the pads have yet to come on, AJ Dillon is looking more trim this offseason while still maintaining his muscle mass, and as he put it, he is in the best shape of his life.

The result appears to be a more explosive version of Dillon, which the Packers need. Last season, Dillon averaged just 3.4 yards per rush, with his eight carries of 10-plus yards ranked 47th out of 58 eligible running backs. He also ranked 42nd in average yards after contact, which is supposed to be his calling card as a physical back.

“I’ve got a bunch of motivation but it’s all internal,” said Dillon. “I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel good so I’m ready to do whatever it takes. I want to go win a Super Bowl. I’ve been here – this is Year 5 now. We’ve been close. That’s really it. I’m going to go out, work and I’m going to be a dog in whatever capacity on game day. That’s it. Motivation? I’ve got it. Discipline? I’ve got it. I’m here and trying to be great.”

By Dillon’s own admission, and Sirmans has agreed, there are times when Dillon is overthinking on the field, and rather than reacting to what’s happening and letting his natural abilities take over, he’s pressing, which can slow him down.

“Just let the game do more of coming to him,” said running backs coach Ben Sirmans last season, “and when he relaxes and does that, he’ll be fine. If you’re out there thinking too much about I need to do this or I need to be this type of guy, then that’s going to take away from you playing natural football.”

From a contract standpoint, with Dillon carrying a dead cap hit of only $167,500, he is far from a roster lock. But as the headline suggests, even with the additions of Jacobs and Marshawn Lloyd, don’t forget about Dillon this summer.

In the early going of offseason programs, he was routinely getting reps ahead of Lloyd. Now, that doesn’t mean he will be RB2 to start the season–that is still to be determined–but there is value in the stability Dillon can provide. He knows the LaFleur offense inside and out and has proven to be quite capable in pass protection and as a receiver. If Dillon can add some playmaking to his well-rounded skill set, then there is certainly a role that can be carved out.

“I envision going out there and balling out every time I’m on the field,” added Dillon. “Whatever that is, that’s for the coaches to decide. Like I said, I’m putting myself in the best position possible, in great shape, working, trying to lead, trying to cross my T’s and dot my I’s.

“Whether that’s special teams, running back, receiver, tight end, fullback, kicker, quarterback, I’m down to do whatever. I’m happy to be here. Like I said, I’m just going to put my helmet on and go to work.”

Marshawn Lloyd adds a new element to the Packers’ running back position: Following the NFL draft, we heard both LaFleur and Adam Stenavich say to some effect that Lloyd brings a different element to this position group for Green Bay. After a short time of watching Lloyd on the practice field, you see what LaFleur and Stenavich were referring to, with him bringing a level of burst and acceleration that the other backs just don’t have.

“He’s got serious speed,” said GM Brian Gutekunst about Lloyd. “He’s very elusive, he’s got great balance, so he’s a little bit different than some of the backs that we have in our depth chart right now.”

The focus for Lloyd during the time off between minicamp and training camp was going to be on the pass-catching aspect of his game. Last season with USC, Lloyd put up ridiculous numbers in the passing game, averaging a whopping 17.8 yards per catch, leading all running backs in yards per catch and average YAC per reception.

“He definitely can be a weapon out of the backfield,” said Matt LaFleur. “I love all the measurables. He’s a 220-pound back that runs 4.4 and can run routes out of the backfield. I think he could be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.”

However, Lloyd wasn’t involved all that heavily in the passing game during his time in college–although as we saw with AJ Dillon, just because the opportunities weren’t there doesn’t mean there isn’t the ability. Over Lloyd’s final two seasons, he was targeted 43 times, including only 18 times in 2023. For some context, those 18 targets ranked 117th among running backs last season.

As has already been detailed, the pass-catching element at running back is an important component when it comes to seeing steady playing time at this position in LaFleur’s offense.

“Pass catching,” said Lloyd when asked what he will focus on. “Just being able to be available as a pass catcher. Being able to use my abilities to make people miss and be used in space. I feel like that’s something I’m gonna work on this whole offseason. It’s been pretty good.”

Although I don’t believe that anyone should forget about Dillon at the running back position this summer, I also don’t think Lloyd is going to experience a rookie season like Dillon did, where he was the third running back and saw minimal playing time. Because Lloyd adds a different dynamic to the offense, Stenavich wants to get him involved as often as they can.

“I would like to get him out there as much as possible,” said Stenavich. “He’s got a skill set that’s a little bit different than AJ’s as far as his speed. He’s not quite the bruiser that (Dillon) is obviously, but he’s got a different type of skill set. So it’ll be nice to get him the ball in space and just see what he can do. I think he’s gonna add a good explosive element to the offense, for sure.”

Where does Emanuel Wilson fit in all of this? If the Packers value Dillon’s well-rounded skill set on the roster, it becomes difficult to see where Wilson fits on the 53-man. In the limited action we saw from him last season, he displayed good burst with the ball in his hands.

However, when it comes to being the third running back on the roster, while there is a certain prerequisite as a ball carrier that has to be maintained, the ability to contribute on special teams and hold up in pass protection will be key factors in determining if Wilson will make the team. During training camp, Wilson could very well have to showcase that he can hang with Dillon when it comes to these parts of the game.

“I just think it’s, there’s a learning curve for every young player in this league,” said LaFleur last October prior to the Denver game, “and you just kind of have to prove it through practice. He’s a talented guy, no question about it. But it’s just that trust that he can go out there no matter what the defense gives us that he’s going to be able to go out there and execute.

“Because it’s not just running the football. It’s protections, it’s all that. I think he’s progressing nicely. We’ll give him more opportunities throughout practice in order for him to be able to go out there and do it in a game.”

In many instances, when it comes to determining the final roster spot at a position group, you could make the case that the team should choose the younger, higher-upside player, which in this case is Wilson, over the veteran on a one-year deal, which is Dillon. However, with both Jacobs and Lloyd under contract for the next four seasons, that thought process becomes less important.

“I’d say mentally, honestly,” said Wilson of where he saw the most growth in his first season. “Just sitting back, asking the guys questions about pass protection and really the running the scheme to. Having my mental reps is the most important thing for me.”

Jarveon Howard and Ellis Merriweather: Howard, similarly to Jacobs and Lloyd, has a more compact frame, listed at 5-10 – 215 pounds. A 2024 UDFA from Alcorn State, Howard’s most productive season was in 2022, when he rushed for over 1,200 yards at 5.0 yards per carry, and 12 scores, ranking 20th at the FCS level in yards after contact. As a pass-catcher, he finished his career with 54 targets, averaging 6.6 yards per catch.

Merriweather went undrafted in 2023 out of Massachusetts and was signed to the Packers’ practice squad in November. Standing 6-1 and weighing 220 pounds, Merriweather averaged 4.0 yards per rush during his final college season, forcing 20 missed tackles and had 15 runs of 10-plus yards. He would also catch 29 passes at 6.7 yards per reception.