When the Bengals chose P.J. Dawson with the final pick of the third round in this year’s draft, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock called him, “the most instinctive linebacker I saw on tape this year.”
Three months later after OTAs, minicamps, and a week of training camp, Bengals players and coaches are saying similar things.
“He’s a savvy player and knows how to get to the ball,” said linebacker Vinny Rey. “He understands football – I can tell he’s been playing football for a while.”
“The knock on him coming out of TCU is that he didn’t test well at the combine, but every linebacker coach around the league that watched the film said, ‘This kid is the best player,’” said linebackers coach Matt Burke. “He naturally has a feel for the game. He sees plays develop and has an understanding of route concepts and that stuff can be hard to teach.”
Dawson says that his instincts on defense are the product of playing on the other side of the ball.
“I feel like it comes from me playing wide receiver in high school,” he told me. “Being on the offensive side helped me learn how offenses work. They don’t do things for no reason. Wherever they send the fullback or the puller, that’s usually where the play is going. I try to make it as simple as possible.”
But learning an NFL defense in your first training camp is anything but simple.
“It’s the normal learning curve for all rookies,” said Burke. “He has to learn the details and make sure he’s on the same page with what we’re trying to get accomplished. Right now he might be doing his own thing when he goes and makes a play.”
“Even though he’s learning all these things for the first time he still maintains his savviness,” said Rey. “He’s not playing like a robot.”
The 22-year-old says that the Bengals defense is actually easier to pick up than the one he learned before earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors at TCU last year.
“It’s the wording,” said Dawson. “Just the terms that they use and learning the minor details. It’s the language – that’s all it is.”
With experienced linebackers like A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict on the roster, Dawson has plenty of available teachers.
“They help me with anything that I need and I appreciate that,” said Dawson. “I feel like I’m going to do the same thing for the next group of rookies coming in.
“I’m also spending a lot of time with the coaches before and after practice trying to get every little extra thing that I can so that I can be ready.”
“I can tell that he’s a quieter guy, but there’s comes a point where you’ve got to start meeting with the coach more and meeting with other guys that see the game from the on-field perspective,” said Rey. “He’s doing that more and more.”
Dawson led the Big 12 in tackles (136) and tackles-for-loss (20) last year and added four interceptions. He’s been compared to Burfict for his playmaking ability and considers that a high compliment.
“I remember when I was watching ‘Hard Knocks’ I saw him and said, ‘Man, that 55 is pretty good.’” said Dawson. “I didn’t even know his name, but he stood out to me. Then I finally met him and I was like, ‘It’s crazy that we’re on the same team.’ It’s a blessing to be here and I’m glad that I can learn from him.”
Dawson is hoping to stand out as well. It’s one of the reasons why he asked be listed as “P.J.” instead of Paul after joining the Bengals.
“I feel more comfortable with P.J. – plus there are a lot of ‘Pauls’ here,” he said. “I didn’t want to be confused for anybody else, so I felt like that would be better.”
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