With their second of two third-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills selected Mississippi tight end Dawson Knox. Knox is a classic projection pick; a former quarterback who changed positions, he never even scored a touchdown in college. What makes him fit into Buffalo’s scheme, and what does his potential look like? Here’s a breakdown.
Although Knox comes in with the billing of a project tight end, there’s room for him to earn playing time even in his rookie season, if he adjusts well to the league. The Bills like using versatile players who can play in-line or split out to the slot (or even motion out wide to the boundary). They need to be able to chip and release, block on the move, and catch passes on deep crossing routes. Knox has that potential. He needs more practice running routes against coverage.
The only players standing in his way are Tyler Kroft and Jason Croom. Kroft, signed to a three-year deal, will be the year-one starter, but there’s room to take Croom’s job.
Tight end production was a black hole in 2018, but the position should rebound closer to 2017’s standards. The leader saw roughly 75 targets and turned that into around 45 catches, 500 yards, and a few touchdowns. The backup will have around 30 targets to work with. If Knox manages to reach the active roster in his rookie season, a reasonable expectation is around 22 catches, 350 yards, and maybe his first touchdown catch.
Knox, who stands 6’4 3/8” and 254 lbs with 33.5” arms, isn’t the easiest player to match. As a quarterback who converted to tight end, a great athlete (4.58 forty, 34.5” vertical, 7.12 three-cone drill, 4.27 short shuttle) who was mostly untested in college, we have to do some projecting with his style. George Kittle makes some sense. Like Knox, he was used sparingly as a receiver, with 42 catches for 604 yards in his final two seasons (Knox managed 39 for 605). The main difference is touchdowns: Kittle had 10, Knox had zero. Kittle’s also a much more aggressive blocker.
Other players who stand in a similar zone of height/weight/athleticism include Ed Dickson, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Jeremy Shockey. In general, we’re talking about versatile receivers and blockers with the ability to stretch the field.
Sample Play: 0 Out 64 All Go H-Sneak
This “four verticals” play is the type of call every NFL offense will have in its playbook. In this variant, the TE is the primary read the whole way. If the defense is schemed up in Cover 2 Strong, the TE switches to a hook route as the hot read. Otherwise, the TE reads the middle of the field. If it’s open (two-high) he runs a post, and if it’s closed (single-high) he flattens out to run between the safety and the linebackers. The quarterback can also choose to throw a favorable single coverage match-up to the outside if he sees one.
This is a play you run when you have faith in your TE’s receiving acumen. In the right situation, it can be a deep touchdown. In other scenarios, it moves the chains. If your TE draws coverage, it opens up plays on the outside. With luck, this is the role that Knox can grow into. For now, it’s a play that Kroft is familiar running.
We don’t fully know what Dawson Knox can do on a football field, yet. Tight end is one of the slowest-developing positions in the NFL. That being said, the Bills have a spot in the lineup for their rookie if he can take it. Knox is another player selected with a long-term vision in mind, but if he works hard, he has the upside to be Buffalo’s starting tight end in the future.