2022 Packers Backfield Breakdown: Misaligned Planets

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

The 2022 Packers Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures degree of volatility, not quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate, represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

Last season, the Green Bay Packers finished No. 17 in the NFL with 446 rushing attempts. Just seven shy of the league’s 452.9 average. That marks their lowest finish in the Matt LaFleur era. Though at No. 12 in 2020 and No. 13 in 2019, they’ve been right around league average each season.

Green Bay has been slightly pass-leaning from a situational play-calling perspective in the past few years. In 2021, they finished No. 11 in the league in early down run rate in neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent). From 2019 to 2020, they were No. 7 in the same category.

From an even more microscopic point of view, the Packers have been very pass-heavy in almost every down-and-distance situation. In 2021, they opted to throw the ball more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in all circumstances but third and short. And 4-percent more often than expected overall.

If the Packers are a high-volume rushing team on the aggregate, that’s generally because they’ve made smart (read: pass-heavy) decisions on their way to gaining leads that they are then able to nurse with the run game. We should expect that trend to continue in 2022.

Efficiency Numbers

For the first time since 2017, someone other than Aaron Jones led the Packers in carries last season. A.J. Dillon notched 17 more attempts as Jones missed two games. Patrick Taylor and Kylin Hill each added double-digit carries in low-volume roles. Here are the complete rushing efficiency profiles for each of those four backs:

For the third straight year, Jones posted quality Box-Adjusted Efficiency Ratings while lagging behind his teammates in Relative Success Rate. While he’s an efficient runner overall, the relationship between Jones’ performances in those two metrics reveals that he’s also been one of the most volatile running backs in the league on a per-carry basis. Since being drafted back in 2017, his yearly Volatility Ratings have landed in the 79th, 51st, 84th, 88th, and 92nd-percentiles, respectively.

Dillon has been the opposite. With a Volatility Rating in the 36th-percentile in his rookie season and one in the 6th-percentile in 2021. Through two seasons, Dillon’s overall efficiency numbers have been seemingly dependent on how often he rips off long runs. In 2020, he posted an 87th-percentile Breakaway Conversion Rate that resulted in a BAE Rating in the 58th-percentile. Last year, he converted breakaway runs at a more subdued 55th-percentile rate, and his BAE Rating dipped to the 39th-percentile. The good news is that his Relative Success Rate marks indicate that he’s producing positive outcomes on his carries regularly. Regardless of whether or not those carries result in deep trips into the secondary.

Neither Taylor or Hill were impressive in limited work last season. If their respective college careers are any indication, we shouldn’t be expecting much more out of either of them from an efficiency standpoint.

So Now What?

Aaron Jones‘ per-game carry rate has dipped in each of the last two seasons. With A.J. Dillon proving to be an effective runner, that trend seems likely to continue going forward. Jones will turn 28 late in the upcoming season. And the Packers have a potential out in his contract next offseason. It would not surprise me to see him become a cap casualty a year from now. His cap hit will jump from just under $6 million now (11th in the league) to over $20 million going into 2023 (highest in the league).

Such a scenario would seem to benefit the fantasy value of Dillon. But I think Green Bay would look to replace Jones with another space back to complement Dillon as the pounder. That doesn’t mean Dillon is destined to never have high-end utility in fantasy. But if you’re holding out hope that he steps into some sort of Derrick Henry role in this LaFleur offense, I think you’ll be disappointed.

Final Word

A.J. Dillon‘s current ADP doesn’t fully reflect that hope. According to DLF, he’s currently being selected in the mid-fifth round as the RB26 in single-QB startups. In the same range as guys like Ezekiel Elliott,¬†James Conner and Isaiah Spiller. That’s not an unreasonable price to pay for a talented player on a good team. Though it’s harder to picture the path to workhorse usage for Dillon in relation to those similarly valued backs. Elliott and Conner are presumably experiencing their twilight years as three-down lead runners right now. Spiller has both age and allure-of-the-unknown advantages over Dillon in that he could hypothetically land in a situation where he steps into an undisputed workhorse role immediately as a rookie. Unless Aaron Jones gets hurt or completely falls off the age cliff, those things aren’t in Dillon’s range of outcomes. Not until at least next season.

Jones’ recent performance doesn’t indicate that he’s ready to fall off that cliff just yet. I would expect him to be an effective and productive player again in 2022. He’s currently going as the RB21 in dynasty startups. Slightly before Elliott and Conner. And in the same area as guys like Leonard Fournette and David Montgomery. That’s an appropriate range. But I’d probably push Jones to the back of that tier, considering the presence of Dillon.

Overall, I’m not investing heavily in any Green Bay running back in dynasty right now. Jones is near the end of his run. Dillon remains in a Tony Pollard-like limbo as a startable asset with super-handcuff upside. One that may never see the planets align in a way that results in him being fully unleashed.