Packers RB depth chart: Aaron Jones injury, COVID-19 cases leave Green Bay thin at running back vs. 49ers

The Packers will definitely be without Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon for “Thursday Night Football,” and most signs point to Aaron Jones being out, too. Green Bay’s running back depth chart featured three solid names only days ago, but now it’s just one giant question mark.

The Packers will potentially be forced to rely on some combination of Tyler Ervin and Dexter Williams to make up for backfield absences. Dillon is out due to a positive COVID-19 test, while Williams was a close-contact trace to Dillon and has to miss out, too. Jones’ calf has been an issue, and it may keep the usual Green Bay starting RB on the sideline Thursday, too. Matt LaFleur might ask Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball 60 times against the 49ers, but when the Packers run it, Ervin and Williams’ combined 15 NFL carries could be put to the test.

Here’s what you need to know about Ervin and Williams, who have two very different running styles, along with speculation on who else could slide into the backfield in an absolute emergency.

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Why is AJ Dillon out Week 9?

Dillon played a secondary role behind Jamaal Williams in Week 8 against the Vikings. Before that game, all the Packers took PCR tests for COVID-19 on Sunday morning. Dillon’s returned as positive for the coronavirus on Monday morning.

The NFL’s gameday testing protocols don’t have a way of preventing what happened to Dillon, so he played while already positive for the virus — it’s just that no one knew it yet. When the positive test came back, Dillon was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list, which made him ineligible to return before Thursday’s game.

Why is Jamaal Williams out Week 9?

Williams didn’t test positive for COVID-19, but in recent weeks, the NFL has been trying to account for better contact tracing after a player (like Dillon) does test positive. The league’s protocols can lead to a player being termed a “high-risk close contact” to the player that tested positive. In Green Bay’s case, Williams and linebacker Kamal Martin were the two players that fell in that category.

The new protocols implemented by the league in October require any high-risk close contacts to an individual who tests positive for COVID-19 to isolate for five days. With the Packers playing Thursday and Williams’ isolation beginning Monday, the turnaround was too short for him to keep returning negative tests and rejoin Green Bay in time for the game.

Who is Tyler Ervin?

Ervin has been listed as a running back on Green Bay’s roster since joining the Packers in 2019, but he was initially brought on to be a return man. And offensively, Ervin has operated in a wide receiver role since the onset of 2020 training camp, so his position on the roster and his No. 32 are a bit misleading. 

It’s not that Ervin can’t run or won’t run with the backs ahead of him out, but he’s certainly not equivalent stylistically to the three RBs ahead of him on the usual Green Bay depth chart.

Ervin has run the ball four times for 43 yards in 2020, so it’s obvious that when the Packers can get him in space, he can make plays. But to hammer home the point that the running-back label is misleading, Ervin’s four carries this season are already a season-high for a player who’s been in the league since 2016. 

In college at San Jose State, Ervin held down a consistent running back role in his final two seasons. As a senior, he ran 294 times for 1,601 yards and 13 touchdowns to go with 45 catches. Just because NFL teams have decided so far that Ervin isn’t a full-time running back doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the skillset to be a multi-faceted weapon out of the backfield. 

It’ll likely be Ervin getting the first crack at early-down carries Thursday if Jones is out, and whether he gets them the whole game could come back to how he does on his first few touches. Regardless of carries, the Packers will certainly have Ervin in the backfield on all their passing downs. 

Who is Dexter Williams?

Williams attended Notre Dame, where he was used only sparingly until his senior season. The small-sample size numbers are very intriguing on Williams, with an average of 6.3 yards per carry for the Fighting Irish. He’s more of a bruising runner than Ervin, measuring 5-11 and 212 pounds.

The Packers took Williams in the sixth round in 2019, a developmental pick at the RB position. As a rookie, Williams played in five games, rushing four times for 11 yards. He hasn’t had a carry yet in 2020 as he’s been relegated to the practice squad after the selection of Dillon.

If the backs ahead of Ervin and Williams were to miss extended time, it’d likely be Williams getting much of the between-the-tackles running work, since his body seems more likely to hold up in the long run than Ervin’s. But in a one-off appearance before the other backs get healthy, it’s harder to predict such a thing.

Green Bay will likely turn to Williams down near the goal line, but it could be tough sledding against a San Francisco defense that’s allowed just three rushing scores to RBs in 2020. 

Packers emergency RB options

If things all fall apart Thursday night, Green Bay could legitimately choose to operate mostly out of empty sets with Rodgers alone in the backfield. If not, there are a few candidates to stand alongside or behind Rodgers and maybe get a carry or two:

  • John Lovett: The fullback/tight end out of Princeton has yet to receive a touch in 2020, but as a senior at Princeton he did run for 894 yards. He at least wouldn’t feel out of place lined up in the backfield.
  • Darrius Shepherd: The return man and slot receiver out of North Dakota State would likely be the next man up to run Ervin’s gadget plays if Ervin himself were injured. His Ervin-like shiftiness could have emergency utility in the backfield.
  • Davante Adams: Things would have to get really weird for the Packers to trust their top receiver anywhere other than in a WR spot, but Adams gets consistent praise for his football intelligence and likely could operate as a running back if absolutely necessary.

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