Going into the draft, few would have foreseen Dawson still being on the board at this point. He was expected to go, at the latest, somewhere in round 2. Dawson was rated as the top 4-3 linebacker prospect by some, and most expected he'd be off the board well before the second day of the draft was ending.
The Bengals would end his slide with pick No. 99, and now may have a future starting linebacker in Dawson. He was a force at TCU in 2014, leading the team with 136 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and four interceptions on his way to being named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Dawson is the ultimate case study of production versus measurables. As you can see from the graphic courtesy of Mockdraftable.com, Dawson is one of the worst athletes to go through the combine at the linebacker positions. We've already chronicled his production which is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from his athleticism.
None of the five linebackers drafted before Dawson could hold a candle to him in on field performance last season. The interesting thing about Dawson going to the Bengals is that he joins a player that also had atrocious measurables who turned out alright in Vontaze Burfict.
Prototype -- Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers: He has the athleticism to frequently fly to the football, can take on blocks then shed them and is comfortable running down the seam with tight ends.
He's the most reliable middle linebacker in football.
Rookie -- Paul Dawson, Cincinnati Bengals: Though he didn't time nearly as well as Kuechly, his play recognition and reaction are supremely impressive.
He has the size, aggressiveness and game speed to instantly translate to the NFL after playing in the wide open Big 12 at TCU.
Dawson will likely play more at WLB while Vontaze Burfict recovers from microfracture surgery endured this offseason. At worst, Dawson will split playing time with Vinny Rey at WLB while also getting some runs at MLB when Rey Maualuga needs a break.
Though best he's best suited at WILL, Dawson can play all three backer spots because of his coverage skills, tackling ability and pass-rushing prowess. It's possible he's already among the most complete linebackers the Bengals have before he plays a down of NFL football.
In the fourth round with pick No. 135, the Bengals added one of the draft's most intriguing prospects in Marcus Hardison. The former Arizona State Suns Devil had just one productive season of D-1 football under his belt after a stint in junior college began his college career. It was a darn good one though, as Hardison racked up a team-leading 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to go with 53 tackles, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He did so while playing both defensive end and tackle, though he's expected to stick on the interior in the NFL.
At his Pro Day, Hardison clocked in 4.8s in the 40-yard dash, and ran the short shuttle in 4.65 seconds and 3 cone drill in 7.29 seconds. All of those are very fast for any defensive lineman, let alone someone who will play on the interior in the NFL.
After a JUCO stint at Dodge City Community College, where he compiled 96 tackles and seven sacks in two seasons, Hardison made the move to big-time college football. He had limited production as a junior adjusting to D-1 football, but exploded this past season as the above numbers show. As a rookie, Hardison should find his way onto the field as a situational pass-rusher while continuing to develop his skills as a DT. His pass-rushing ability is something the line desperately needs, and that will get him on the field as a rookie.
Still, with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap occupying most of the snaps at DE while Geno Atkins and Domata Peko do the same at DT, don't expect to see Hardison too often in his rookie season.
With the Bengals' final pick in the 2015 NFL draft, No. 238 overall, they selected Mario Alford out of West Virginia University.
Though it came in Round 7, Alford could make as big of an impact in Cincinnati as any rookie this year. Not only does he possess the kind of blazing speed the Bengals need more of, but he's a dynamic returner who could unseat Brandon Tate as the team's primary return man.
Alford caught the team's eye when he flashed a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash to highlight his speed. The 5'8", 180-pound receiver caught 65 passes for 945 yards and a Big 12-leading 11 scores this past season. Alford also returned 37 kickoffs for 972 yards, with a 26.3 yard/return average and two touchdowns.
Alford’s biggest strength happens to be something that's been missing in the Bengals’ offense, and that's speed. Alford's straight line speed gives him the ability to take the top off of a defense and not allow defensive coordinators to stack the box while he is on the field. His speed also forces corners to play off, fearing that Alford will fly by them, opening up shorter dig routes and slants underneath.
With news that James Wright won't play in 2015, the chances of Alford now making the 53-man roster are very good. He offers too many things the Bengals needed to get more of this offseason. Still, Alford will need to have a good showing in training camp and into the preseason to earn his spot. Alford may very well make the roster based solely on his special-teams impact, whether it's as a returner or on the coverage units. That will give him time to develop and learn Cincinnati’s offense so that he can become a more focal point on the team as time goes on.
In the end, expect Alford to make the final roster this year and get some run on special teams as both a returner and on coverage teams. Don’t expect him to make much of an impact though on offense with A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu occupying most of the snaps there.