When the draft process was heating up, most pundits figured the Bengals would search for a linebacker early on. To the surprise of some, they waited until the third round to snag up a talented player in TCU's Paul "P.J." Dawson. Perhaps equally as surprising is that one of the best linebackers in the class was available with the last pick of the third round.
Dawson had an impressive year with the Horned Frogs in 2014, racking up 135 tackles, six sacks and four interceptions. There were some character concerns with Dawson, instigated by his reputation for showing up late to team meetings. Even so, most draftniks agree Dawson has some of the best instincts as a linebacker to come out of the 2015 draft.
Why He Makes The List:
Vontaze Burfict's Injury And Rehab: Though the hope is Burfict will be returning for the regular season opener, it's far from a certainty at this point. In the unfortunate event of Burfict missing time and/or getting eased back into the lineup, Dawson could be the fill-in guy. Emmanuel Lamur is the "coverage linebacker" of the corps, so if they mix in Lamur in nickel packages, Dawson could play the early downs.
Dawson's Versatility And Bengals Defensive System: Dawson has the skill set to play more than one linebacker spot, which bodes well for him getting playing time as a rookie. Throw in that the Bengals move their linebackers around a little and all have many similar (though some different) responsibilities, and Dawson could fit in the group through a variety of ways.
A Thin Group?: Cincinnati's linebacker group is littered with underrated free agents, as well as former high picks like Rey Maualuga and A.J. Hawk. The only bonafide star is Burfict, and we've already mentioned his predicament. This is a year where Dawson could get time because of a perceived thin herd.
Personally speaking, the Dawson pick was my favorite in the class because it satisfied the perfect blend of need and talent, especially for the value of the pick. And that's saying something, given that Dawson is part of a class that had other likable picks. Though some analysts went as far as calling Dawson a "knucklehead", his talent and instincts are undeniable.
If 2014 taught us anything, it's that a team simply can't hang all of their hopes on a player returning from injury and being the same guy right away. That is why the Dawson pick is relieving in the wake of Burfict's rehab situation. Whether he cracks the starting lineup is yet to be seen, but he should be a contributor as a rookie.