The Bengals selected P.J. Dawson with the 99th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, despite the fact that some projections had him being off the board as high as the late first round. A poor combine performance as well as questions about his character and work ethic caused him to drop to the Bengals in the third round. At that point, they pounced on a fantastic opportunity to pick up a linebacker who was known for his ability to bring down running backs quickly while also playing well at the second level.
Those kind of skills make you think that he'd be a perfect fit at the strongside linebacker position, a position where players are expected to line up across from the tight end and get to the running back as quickly as possible.
The ability to cover well like a safety in both zone and man situations is also important for playing the position. Dawson flashed this ability in his few playing opportunities in the 2015 preseason and regular season, exemplified by this diving pass deflection against the San Francisco 49ers in a Week 15 win for the Bengals last year.
As of right now, the Bengals are pretty solid at both middle and weakside linebacker, but they have a significant hole at strongside linebacker. Over the last few years, this position has been filled by players such as Emmanuel Lamur, Manny Lawson, James Harrison, and even Michael Johnson. None of those players have lasted very long at the position for the Bengals for one reason or another. This year, they seem likely to be adding another aged veteran to the list, Karlos Dansby.
For whatever reason, the Bengals seem to be more interested in training Dawson at weakside linebacker, a position that seems to be on lockdown by Vontaze Burfict. The weakside linebacker is expected to drop into pass coverage more often in the second level against receivers, so Burfict's speed and physicality make a lot of sense at the position. It's really hard to see him giving it up any time soon.
For Dawson, his ability to read and react to the running back well seems to be useful on the opposite side of Burfict. He was particularly well known for this in college, but he flashed this ability multiple times in the 2015 preseason when asked to stuff running plays.
As you can see, Dawson's ability to penetrate the trenches and get to the running back to hold down a goal line stand is very well developed. Granted, the Bengals ended up giving up a safety when they received the ball after the turnover on downs. But, Dawson played his role expertly. If he were to be consistently lined up on the weak side, he just wouldn't get opportunities like this, or the one he had later in the same game often enough.
Worth noting is the fact that Dawson hasn't really had much of a chance to flash his ability to cover tight ends in his career snaps so far. Although, he was noted as playing well against tight ends in his rookie training camp last summer. However, he did flash his expert ability to snuff out a screen against the Bears in the preseason, which is just as important when lining up on the strong side.
On top of all of these highlights, Dawson also proved he can slice through the trenches to get to the quarterback as well. He broke through two levels of blockers against the Indianapolis Colts to take down Colts' quarterback Bryan Bennett in the Bengals final preseason game last year. If that doesn't show his ability to handle the strong side, I don't know what does.
Ultimately, I think it would be better for the Bengals to utilize Dawson on the strong side of the defense more often. If he does well, it should help stabilize a position that has essentially been a carousel for the Bengals for years. It also seems like playing the weakside role behind Burfict is wasting his talents.
Burfict isn't going anywhere any time soon. Despite the fact that his suspension could open up a small opportunity for Dawson to showcase his abilities, there probably isn't much chance that he will get a lot of playing time at the position when Burfict comes back. On the strong side, his primary competition right now looks like an aged Dansby, and an unproven pair of backups in Trevor Roach and Jayson Dimanche. If the Bengals want to get the most out of Dawson's talent, a change from weakside to strongside might be required.