Every year, the NFL draft brings us college prospects with whom we can’t seem to get agreement. These controversial players lead to endless debates over their likely success or failure. The 2020 draft is no different. Boston College’s A.J. Dillon may just be this year’s most polarizing prospect at the running back position. Depending on who you ask, you might see a ranking as generous as RB3, or as low as RB20. One thing is for sure. Dillon is good at football. But is there a place for him in today’s NFL?
Dillon was a monster at Boston College. He broke out in his freshman year at the age of 19.5, taking home ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He finished his three-year career with 4,382 rushing yards (the most rushing yards by any running back in BC history), 236 receiving yards, and 40 touchdowns. Since 2000, Dillon’s career average of 125.5 yards per game ranks 5th all-time among all power-5 running backs. He did all this while facing a stacked box on 75% of his career carries. In 2019 alone, he ranked first in the FBS for the most yards and yards after contact against stacked boxes.
At 6’0″, 247 pounds with a reported 7% body fat percentage, Dillon looks like he was chiseled from granite. He led the ACC with the most forced missed tackles, showcasing surprisingly nimble footwork, speed, and elusiveness for a back his size. He’s able to dissect and process his gaps at the line of scrimmage, utilizing an arsenal of quick feet, stiff arms, and nasty spin moves to find his way to the second level. Dillon is anything but your average power running back.
Dillon’s size/speed combo is reminiscent of 2019 NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry, who was an essential part of Tennessee’s playoff run. His athletic prowess was on full display at the NFL Combine, where he posted a top 10 40-yard dash time (4.53) and placed first in both the vertical (41″) and broad (131″) jumps for the running back position. Dillon finished with a 97th percentile SPARQ score.
Dillon moves well when executing one or two cuts and running downhill, but he isn’t very impressive with his lateral quickness. Due to his weight, he has trouble changing direction quickly. This will occasionally cause him to hesitate at the point of attack, stuttering at the line of scrimmage or slowing down before contact. He doesn’t always finish runs as a back of his size would be expected to.
As far as his receiving skills go, Dillon wasn’t asked to be much of a pass-catcher out of the backfield at Boston College. He notched only 21 career receptions (13 in his final year) for 236 yards. He occasionally showcases a pair of soft hands, but his lack of experience catching the ball has led to a few focus drops and could signal a red flag to NFL teams, profiling him as a two-down banger on some teams’ draft boards.
Dillon’s 845 college rushes ranks as the 30th-highest workload in CFB history since the year 2000. While it isn’t the dreaded “900” number, it still puts him in a category with a few ugly names and raises some longevity concerns.
I wouldn’t necessarily label Dillon’s blocking skills as a weakness, but his technique could use some improvement. He shows the willingness and strength to square up and drive his opponent. He also shows the ability to act as a lead blocker and take care of his assignments in the run game. However, he occasionally presses too hard upfield, taking him out of position to get beat around the edge or chip his assignment.
Overall, I ended up coming away impressed with Dillon’s film. He showcases exceptional footwork and balance for a running back with his build. He’s able to bounce off would-be tacklers and wear down defenses with his punishing running style. His unique size and athleticism give him a wide range of outcomes, and I believe there is a role for him at the next level.
Dillon doesn’t project as a match for every team. He is better suited for a run-heavy/power-run team that will give him the opportunities and workload he needs to get rolling. Some of my preferred landing spots for Dillon would be the Steelers, Lions, Seahawks, or the Broncos. I would currently project him as a complimentary piece with the ability to handle the load if given the opportunity. As my current RB8, I expect Dillon to have an outside shot at Day 2 draft capital, but it’s more likely he’s chosen on Day 3.