NFL draft steal: Bills tight end Dawson Knox finally developing into standout

·5 min read

Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a first-, second- or third-year player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where he was selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Ole Miss TE Dawson Knox

Buffalo Bills
6-foot-4, 254 pounds
2019 NFL draft: Round 3, No. 96 overall

The Bills' win Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium was a massive one for a team that has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The Kansas City Chiefs had beaten the Bills twice last season by two scores each time, including in the AFC championship game.

It was after that game that Bills GM Brandon Beane lamented that his team's tight end position had been "up and down" during the 2020 season. Knox had a TD catch in the AFC title game and finished the season strong but was set back last year by various injuries and a bout with COVID. He also was plagued by dropped passes (10) as a rookie in 2019.

Meanwhile, Knox's counterpart, Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, had a massive AFC title game (13 catches, 118 yards, two TDs) against the Bills to lift the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. Beane's comments read like a challenge to Knox prior to his third NFL season.

"Dawson started to get his groove, but it was never where the opposing defense was like, 'Man, we've got to stop their tight ends from going off,'" Beane said. "We'd love to have a guy like what we just faced in [Kelce]. They don't come [around] very often. But that's what we want.

"We've got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens."

Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox celebrates a big win at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox celebrates a big win at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Challenge accepted. 

Knox got a fresh start this season and has been fantastic, catching 18 passes for 261 yards and five TDs so far for the 4-1 Bills. Against the Chiefs, he caught three passes for a career-best 117 yards and a touchdown that gave the Bills a first-half, two-TD lead.

That's now four straight games in which Knox has scored — the first tight end in franchise history to accomplish that — and had a two-TD game in Week 4 in a blowout of the Texans. A month shy of his 25th birthday, Knox is now starting to look like one of the bright, up-and-coming tight ends in the NFL. 

So why are things finally clicking for Knox? And how did he last until late in Round 3 in 2019? We dig in on Knox as a prospect.

Why did Dawson Knox slip in the draft?

Knox's path to the draft was a bit of a strange one, as injuries and a position switch slowed his progress with the Rebels.

Following a season-ending injury in the first game of his high-school season, Knox — then a quarterback — had trouble earning recruiting attention. Eventually, he walked on at Ole Miss and soon switched to tight end.

After some physical setbacks, he eventually earned a starting role over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. But in an offense featuring DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Van Jefferson, Jordan Wilkins, DaMarkus Lodge, Braylon Sanders and others, there were only so many receptions to go around.

In 18 career games, Knox caught 39 passes for 605 yards and zero TDs. That's right — he went his entire college career without a TD catch. That meant when he caught his first NFL TD, Knox ended an end-zone streak that had carried over since his junior year of high school.

When Knox declared for the NFL draft, he was hailed as a superior athlete for the position with the speed to threaten the seam — and his college receiving average of 15.5 yards seemed to back that up.

But his lack of experience, inconsistent blocking (good effort, shaky technique) and some rawness to his game all were reasons Knox wasn't picked higher. It was also a pretty strong TE class overall, with 16 of them drafted (the most at the position since 2015), including four going in the top 50 overall.

How we viewed Knox as a prospect

Knox was our No. 85 overall prospect, so he ended up being drafted just a bit lower than we imagined. 

When we watched the tape of Knox, it wasn't hard to get excited about his potential. We saw a high-energy player who lacked refinement but figured to grow in the NFL following a somewhat unusual college experience for a third-round pick.

Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox (9) had some eye-opening moments in college but never caught a TD pass with the Rebels. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox (9) had some eye-opening moments in college but never caught a TD pass with the Rebels. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

From our scouting report in 2019:

There’s also a competitive fire that shows up in his games, as he gives good effort in his blocking (and has room for growth in that department) and will fight through tackle attempts on the second level. Every indication is that Knox will be a far better pro than a college player. He’s a tricky evaluation because of the low usage in the pass game, but a fun player to watch and one who figures to surprise some people.

Future forecast

Tight ends are notoriously one of the slower-developing positions. There are significant blocking and receiving duties, along with the expectation that most tight ends will also be used on special-teams units. That's quite a bit to throw at a young player, not to mention one such as Knox who lacked college experience.

His issues with drops as a rookie were not shocking either, as Knox's hands were a bit inconsistent in college on his limited attempts. Although we can't call Knox a devastating blocker, he's made strides in that department in the NFL and often lines up in-line.

But it's Knox's improved chemistry with Josh Allen that has us very bullish on his future. Earning the trust of one of the league's better young quarterbacks is a crucial development, and Knox could continue to flourish as a pass-catching standout in a high-flying offense.

As he reaches his peak age, injuries might be the one foreseeable pitfall for Knox. Otherwise, he looks like a young star in the making and a notable draft steal.

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