Coming into 2021 with a very similar roster to the year before left a lot of Buffalo Bills fans wondering how the team would be better now than they were in 2020. In many cases, the answer to that question contained the possibility for development for some of the younger players on the roster. Given the third-year jump made by Josh Allen in 2020, a large part of the development narrative focused around third-year Bills in 2021 and, specifically to the offense, tight end Dawson Knox. When you add the repeated flirtation with a trade for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, Knox was front and center in a lot of offseason discussions.
Through three games, Knox hasn’t been a breakout star, but he’s performing at a much more efficient rate than his reputation would indicate. He has ten catches on 12 targets (83.33 percent catch rate) for 107 yards (10.7 yards per reception) and two touchdowns. His jump in catch rates from 2019 (56 percent) and 2020 (54.5 percent) is the clear outlier, but his 1.19 yards per route run (YRR) is also a career-high mark and he has been charged with just one drop.
Lest we think a three-game sample size isn’t enough to comment on Knox’s progression, Joe Marino of The Draft Network compiled the numbers on the last 12 games (including playoffs) for the former third-round pick out of Ole Miss:
- 7 touchdown catches
- 74 percent catch percentage
- 133.75 passer rating when targeted
- 4 percent drop rate
It’s been well documented that Knox was a converted quarterback who barely ran routes as a receiver in college and was a raw lump of clay coming into the league who never even caught a touchdown in college. But as we see Knox start to improve, what can Bills Mafia reasonably expect from him as far as production goes? What would make the tight end position NOT one of the things on the multitude of “needs going into 2022” lists that will pop up on the internet this offseason?
The Bills were an 11-personnel majority offense (1 running back, 1 tight end) during their offensive explosion in 2020 and that trend has continued in 2021 after a brief uptick in 10 personnel usage (1 running back, 0 tight ends) in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Through three games, they’ve utilized 11 personnel 66 percent of the time—good for ninth in the league. So with one tight end on the field the majority of the time, it appears likely their place in those rankings will increase in the coming weeks as the Week 1 anomaly becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the overall sample size. But what types of stat lines are tight ends in wide receiver-centric offenses actually getting?
For reference, the Bills have only targeted the tight end position in general 14 times this year and, as mentioned, 12 of those have gone to Knox. So what other teams run 11 personnel the majority of the time, but target their tight ends less frequently?
The Indianapolis Colts have run with one tight end and one running back a league-leading 84 percent of the time thus far in 2021 but have only targeted their tight ends 20 times in total. Their leading tight end Jack Doyle has a 64.3 percent catch rate and 1.27 YRR. The Los Angeles Rams have run 11 personnel 79 percent of the time and their leading TE Tyler Higbee has received 100 percent of the 12 targets they’ve sent to their tight end room. He has 1.46 YRR and a 91.7 catch rate. The Seattle Seahawks lead the Bills with a 69 percent 11-personnel usage and their go-to tight end is Gerald Everett, who’s received nine of the 14 total TE targets so far in 2021. Everett has a YRR of 1.08 and a 100 percent catch rate.
If your team runs 11 personnel as their base grouping and they throw to tight ends as infrequently as the Bills do, the production they’re currently getting from Dawson Knox is completely reasonable. The team should never turn down an opportunity for a game-changer at the position, but given how few of those players exist in the league, if 2021 (so far) Knox is what they get for the remainder of the year, I won’t be pounding the table for an upgrade in 2022.