Dawson Knox heard the rumors. He knows fans were exploring all the tight end prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, just like he knows of the rumblings regarding a potential trade for Zach Ertz. He knows that he’s under the microscope as the Buffalo Bills approach training camp. The 24-year old has certainly shown flashes of potential in his first two seasons with Buffalo, but drops in critical moments are hard to wipe from the memories of coaches and fans alike.
Entering year three, Knox knows that he can’t be dropping the ball if he hopes to remain the team’s starting tight end, and he made a concerted effort to work on his hands during the offseason.
“That’s my number one focus. I don’t want to be dropping touchdowns and I know no one wants to see that,” Knox told the media during a video conference last week. “I actually did a bunch of stuff in California with this hand-eye trainer. He does a ton of work with guys across the NHL and MLB. It’s crazy the different types types of tools he has – whether it’s catching stuff from a machine shooting ping pong balls at you, or looking at a screen and touching stuff. Doing eye movement assessments, it was really cool to learn some of the stuff that he has, and I was with him every day for about six weeks. He sent me this thing, it’s called a ‘Robo Pong’ machine and it shoots out ping pong balls at you, they’ve got different curves on them and you just work on catching them. So that’s definitely been a big emphasis for me.”
Following the team’s gut-wrenching 38-24 loss in the AFC Championship, general Manager Brandon Beane was blunt in his assessment of Buffalo’s tight end group, stating that the team needs more from the position if they hope to match the firepower of a team like the Kansas City Chiefs. In the heat of the moment, Beane certainly radiated a sense of jealousy at his AFC counterparts, after their own all-world, playmaking tight end Travis Kelce made the Bills’ defense look flat-out silly, catching 13 passes for 112 yards and two scores.
Knox has begun to pick Kelce’s brain and will be attending ‘Tight End U’ where the league’s top tight ends will gather to watch film and share tricks of the trade with their positional brethren from around the league. Kelce is the NFL’s top dog at the tight end position and Knox has aspirations of developing into a player that can make a similar impact.
“I want to get to the point where I am that weapon for this team. Travis (Kelce) is the best in the league at what he does, so I talked with him some after the game and we’re planning on getting together at the ‘Tight End U’ thing, which I’m excited for,” said Knox.
But right now, the uncertainty in the Bills’ tight end group is warranted. For a team in “Super Bowl or Bust” mode, it’s difficult to put all your eggs in one basket, with the hopes of Knox taking a miraculous leap in his development Which is why the team brought in Jacob Hollister and rumors are swirling regarding the potential trade for former All-Pro Zach Ertz. But none of this matters to Knox, who has welcomed competition at every level for several years.
“You know, whoever they bring in that’s just great competition for the room,” Knox said about the team looking to make upgrades at tight end. “I love that Jacob (Hollister) is here, he’s a great dude. He lives five minutes away from me in downtown Nashville, which is cool. But I think no matter who they bring in, it just elevates everyone in that room. When I was at Ole Miss, I was a walk-on. I was learning behind Evan (Engram), who’s an All-American. He graduated and they brought in three four-star recruits that same year and I feel like that elevated my game. I earned the starting spot that same year and kept that spot through my years there. Then, I was able to come in as a rookie and earn the starting spot (in Buffalo). So I mean, no matter who they bring in, whether it’s a rookie, or an All-Pro like Zach (Ertz), it will be great to elevate competition.”
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The Ole Miss product has the athletic ability to be that dynamic weapon like a Kelce or an Ertz. But as he looks ahead to his third professional season, Knox is just beginning to get a feel for the mental nuances of the position which he believes will allow him to take that next step in his development.
“But it comes from watching film and getting on the field and, you know, feeling out some of the stuff that he can see pretty quickly. It’s really not just running your route and being in the right spot. It’s kind of how well can you adjust on the fly, how well can you read coverages when the ball’s snapped, because defenses are so good at disguising coverages. Safeties are moving around, linebackers are showing blitz but then drop out. So I’m starting to kind of catch on to some of those things, which I feel like I was able to do more and more as the year went on last year.”
Knox got by almost solely on physical ability throughout the early stages in his career, but he was insightful when elaborating on what he’s learned about playing the position to this point in his career.
“A big thing, depending on the concept, depending on the play, you can be open too early,” Knox said. “That’s a thing. You don’t want to necessarily beat your guy when the ball is snapped because Josh might not be looking at you yet. So that patience of just knowing Josh’s progression, knowing what he’s looking at in certain coverages, and knowing where to fit, too, is huge, and that just comes with playing a lot. With two years under my belt, I’m starting to see some of those things that I had no idea was even a thing in my rookie year, you know, I was just out there with my head spinning, hoping I ran the right route. But now, I’m able to start focusing on some of those intricate details that Josh is looking for too.
Knox caught 24 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games last season despite missing time due to COVD-19 and a concussion. On the surface these numbers don’t seem too impressive, but things began to click during the second half of the year, as he caught 18 passes for 195 yards and three scores between Weeks 10-16. He added 10 catches for 65 yards and two scores in Buffalo’s three playoff games.
“The second half of the season, I really felt like I was starting to put together some good momentum,” Knox told reporters. “I’m not sure exactly what my stats were through the last few games, but I feel like I was definitely on the right track, you know, starting to get my feet under me, starting to get my timing right with Josh (Allen). So I want to take how we finished last year and keep that good momentum going through this year.”
When the Bills made Knox the No. 96 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, they knew patience would be key. The 6-foot-4, 254-pounder certainly possessed all the physical traits and athletic ability coveted at the tight end position, but the former high school quarterback was fairly inexperienced. In two seasons as the starter for the Rebels, Knox caught just 39 passes for 605 yards, without scoring a touchdown.
Year three is supposedly the magical year when most young players with raw talent finally hone their skills and show whether they can be relied upon to be consistent players for their respective teams. When Knox was asked about where he felt he was in his development, he acknowledged that he has made some progress, but emphatically stated that he’s not even close to where he wants to be.
“Every year I’ve just tried to keep stacking good games on good games and right now I’m just focused on this offseason and what I can do every day to make myself into the best tight end I can be, the best tool I can be for this team to win games.”
“I feel like I haven’t touched my potential yet,” added Knox. “And I’m ready to take that next step, so I’m really excited. I feel like I’ve had some decent years, some decent stats, but I’m definitely far from content with my game so far.”