Sure, it sounds absurd on the surface – and maybe it is. But if it’s not a bit outlandish, then it’s not really a "bold" prediction. Our latest in a series of bold predictions is a prediction that rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson will be the leading tackler on the Bengals for the 2015 season.
Given the popularity of this draft pick among Bengals’ fans, this prediction may not seem that bold on the surface. But consider that heading into training camp Dawson is likely behind Vontaze Burfict, Ray Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur, and Vincent Ray on the depth chart. And there is no guarantee he is ahead of newcomer A.J. Hawk, either.
Consider too that Marvin Lewis often likes to give his young rookie defensive players a minor role in their first season. Just ask some of the defensive players they drafted in the first half of recent drafts, such as Darqueze Dennard, Will Clarke, Margus Hunt, Shawn Williams, Dre Kirkpatrick, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson, Dontay Moch or even Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, about how much playing time they got in their first year on the team.
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Dawson displayed a lackluster performance at the combine (lowlighted by a 4.93 time in the 40 yard dash) which caused the draft "experts" to speculate whether he had the athleticism to successfully play linebacker at the NFL level. As a result, his draft stock tumbled from a potential spot at the end of round one, all the way to the bottom of the third round. He was not selected until 13 other linebackers had been chosen in the 2015 NFL draft.
So what arguments can we present in defense of the prediction that a supposedly slow, backup linebacker like Dawson will lead the Bengals in tackles?
DAWSON IS A LINEBACKER
Looking back over the last decade, the Bengals’ player who led the team in total tackles has been a linebacker. From 2014 to 2005: Vincent Rey, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict (twice), Thomas Howard, Dhani Jones (three times), Landon Johnson (twice), and Odell Thurman have all played the linebacker position. With a strong track record, we can pretty much assume that a linebacker will lead the Bengals in total tackles in 2015. Dawson is a linebacker, so he at least has this much going for him.
DAWSON IS GOOD IN COVERAGE
To lead the team in tackles, you need to make tackles. And you can’t make tackles if you are not on the field. Dawson was a very good coverage linebacker in college, and he could pan out to be one of the Bengals’ better pass coverage linebackers this year. This means Dawson could play all three downs, and would not need to come off the field in passing situations. Also, if the Bengals continue to run a nickel defense with regularity, his pass coverage ability should keep him on the field for many of the team’s defensive plays.
VONTAZE BURFICT IS NOT 100 PERCENT YET
Burfict is a great linebacker. The speculation is that Dawson will begin his career as Burfict’s backup. Although with Burfict not fully healthy yet, Dawson could see time starting in Burfict’s spot. Also, with a history of concussions in 2014, Burfict will be on a short leash in the concussion protocol, which means even more potential time on the field for Dawson. And there is always the possibility of Burfict facing setbacks as he recovers from surgery. All of these point to Dawson’s prospects for playing time to increase.
BENGALS HISTORY OF DRAFT FALLERS, RISING ON THE FIELD
Several of the Bengals’ defensive starters are men who were great on-field players in college, but who fell on draft day for various reasons. George Iloka was one of the top safeties in his draft class on tape, but a slow 40-yard dash dropped him quite a bit. Burfict was a beast on the field, but an Andre Smith-like combine workout coupled with "character issues" dropped him out of the draft entirely. Both Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were defensive ends who fell on draft day due to "questionable motors" and "red flags", respectively. Oh, and there is that Geno Atkins guy who was "too small" to play defensive tackle in the NFL.
The Bengals have a recent history of players on the defensive side of the ball who were very well thought of prospects that fell on draft day for various reasons. Dropping all the way to the end of round three, Dawson easily fits into this category. All of these Bengals players have gone on to have good NFL careers, and this successful track record bodes well for Dawson.
A BAD 40 TIME DOES NOT EQUATE TO BEING AN UNSUCCESSFUL NFL LINEBACKER
Here is an impromptu list of very successful NFL linebackers who had slower times in the 40 yard dash.
+ Lance Briggs 4.75 (7 time Pro Bowl selection with over 900 career tackles)
+ NaVorro Bowman 4.70 (3 time First Team All Pro selection)
+ Clay Matthews 4.62 (4 time Pro Bowl selection averaging over 10 sacks per season)
+ Brian Urlacher 4.59 (4 time First Team All Pro selection with over 1,000 career tackles)
Each of these linebackers were very good in college. Each of these linebackers had slower times in the 40 yard dash. Each of these linebackers have become very good in the NFL. A slow 40-yard sprint in your underwear, in February, in Indiana does not make or break a linebacker’s prospects for success in the NFL. It is possible to be a good NFL player without elite speed over 40 yards.
A BAD 40 TIME AT THE COMBINE DOES NOT NECESSARILY EQUATE TO BEING SLOW
There is a difference between "track speed" and "game speed". The NFL Combine highlights players with good "track speed", who can run well in a timed event. Whereas "game speed" is more evident on game tape, which also factors in how instinctive a player is and how well they react to the game around them. This is where Dawson excels.
Dawson played wide receiver in high school and at junior college before becoming a linebacker after transferring to TCU. And Dawson was considered one of the best college linebackers last year in pass coverage. To be a receiver, and to cover receivers, you have to have some speed, despite what you run in a 40 yard dash.
Dawson did run faster at his college Pro Day (4.78) compared to the combine. While that jump in speed could be attributed to many things (faster track, better conditioning, more time training for the 40 yard dash), it does show that he is not as slow in his track speed as first thought.
Fortunately, most tackles made by linebackers are not made after 40 yards of running. Diagnosing a play and reacting with speed over a short area are much more important to a linebacker than how long it takes him to run 40 yards.
DAWSON WAS AN INSTINCTIVE TACKLING MACHINE IN COLLEGE
Consider that just four years ago Paul Dawson was entering junior college as a wide receiver. And it was only two years ago that Dawson became a full time starter a linebacker.
Despite that late commitment to the position, Dawson led Texas Christian University (TCU) in tackles his junior season. Last year, as a senior, he led the entire Big 12 with 136 tackles (81 solo), led the Big 12 with 3 fumble recoveries, and tied for the Big 12 record with 20.0 tackles for loss. Dawson also caused or recovered 8 turnovers as a senior. He averaged an impressive rate of one tackle every 5.3 snaps last year.
Simply put, Dawson is an instinctive tackling machine. His natural ability to play the position should begin to show in training camp, allowing him to push for playing time, and ultimately leadi the Bengals in tackles in the 2015 season.
So what do you think of this bold prediction? Does P.J. Dawson have any chance of leading the Bengals in tackles in 2015, or is this bold prediction just a bit too bold?