CFF Player Profile: Paul Dawson, LB
Linebacker is one of the most difficult to evaluate the performance of in all of football. Unless the player is making a stop or blatantly missing a tackle it can be tough to say if he executed his assignment well on a particular run play. Thankfully, Paul Dawson made my life easy when grading TCU games as he blew up more runs than anyone in the NCAA last year and received our highest overall grade of any linebacker in the draft.
When scouting a player you always want to see them at their best and at their worst. Dawson was so consistently dominant, though, that his worst was hard to find. The TCU linebacker didn’t have a single negatively-graded game all season and when he was at his best, no one could match him. Against Minnesota Dawson played as flawlessly as a linebacker played all season, racking up 11 stops and three pressures en route to the highest graded game we saw from a college linebacker.
Overview & Stats
The one word that I just keep coming back to with Dawson is ‘instincts’. He sees runs develop at a truly elite level, racking up unblocked tackles simply because he gets to the point of attack before linemen can get off their combo blocks. There wasn’t a more aggressive linebacker in the country last season and he can play that way because of his instincts. This led to him leading all draftable linebackers in Run Stop Percentage by a ridiculous 8.8 percentage points (23.2% to 14.4%). That margin alone is higher than Shaq Thompson’s Run Stop Percentage (7.3%).
Dawson’s style of play, however, won’t be every defensive coordinator’s cup of tea. There are going to be negatives that come along with his aggression. Gap integrity wasn’t the linebacker’s strong suit as he would often dive into a gap instead of scraping over the top of a block to make a tackle downfield. Dawson also can get caught out of position against play action as he almost always steps towards the line of scrimmage at the snap.
That play style doesn’t just apply to the running game as he’s also a risk taker in coverage. Only two draft eligible linebackers got their hands on the football more than Dawson’s eight combined interceptions and pass breakups (four of each). He showed a great feel for route combinations in TCU’s matchup zone coverages and had more than adequate burst breaking on underneath routes. Dawson is a limited athlete, though, as shown glaringly at the combine, and that was apparent when he had to run the seam or follow a crosser. Once he’s lost ground, Dawson just doesn’t have the ability to make it back up.
The combine numbers above are very notable for two reasons, the first reason being that it did nothing to dispel the poor work ethic rumors that have been following him around in the evaluation process. The second reason is the obvious fact that they are extreme outliers for starting NFL linebackers. According to mockdraftable.com, none of his measurable are above the 37th percentile among linebackers. That is almost unheard of for an early-round draft pick. It is worth noting, though, that even with limited athleticism, Dawson still finished second among linebackers with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 21.6.
Aside from Dawson’s athleticism concerns, there are also question marks about his positional fit that will push his draft stock down. He played weakside linebacker in TCU’s 4-2-5 defense and was rarely asked to take on blocks. A former receiver before converting to linebacker, Dawson relied on his remarkable body control and coordination to beat blocks in college. If he’s asked to play inside linebacker in the NFL he’ll have to stack and shed linemen and lead blockers, something he almost never did a year ago. The physicality issue also showed up in his tackling where he missed 17 last season for a 9.3 tackling efficiency.
All concerns aside, Dawson was still the most productive off-ball linebacker in this class by a long shot. If he had the measurables of a prospect like Eric Kendricks, Dawson would be a sure-fire Top 10 pick. The NFL will always be wary of players with athletic red flags and as such Dawson will likely slip to the second round or later even with first round output on the field. One of the most curious prospects in the class, Dawson will be a fantastic case study for combine numbers vs. on field performance at the linebacker position.
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