And in true Bill Belichick fashion, Belichick zigged where everyone expected him to zag.
The Patriots football czar waited until the fifth round to select a linebacker, Purdue thumper Ja’Whaun Bentley, and addressed the offensive line, running back and cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft.
Out of those first three picks, the most surprising selection was Florida cornerback Duke Dawson. The Patriots had Dawson in for a pre-draft visit, so their interest wasn’t unexpected necessarily, but he was expected to go a round or two later than the Patriots selected him.
In my initial study of Dawson’s tape, I saw a cornerback that’s skills translated best in the slot due to limitations as an outside corner such as hip stiffness, average makeup speed, and below-average tracking skills. I also worried about Dawson’s grabby nature and open-field tackling ability. For those reasons, and with replacing Malcolm Butler in mind, I preferred other corners in that area of the draft such as UCF’s Mike Hughes, Iowa’s Josh Jackson and Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver whom the Falcons selected two picks after the Patriots took Dawson.
However, after re-evaluating Dawson’s tape, and factoring in his expected role with the Pats, the selection starts to make more sense.
The Patriots ranked second-to-last in yards allowed to slot receivers last season according to Pro Football Focus (1,570). They cycled through some different options at the position (Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung, Johnson Bademosi) and were never able to find a stable presence. This weakness, in part due to Malcolm Butler’s benching, was exposed by the Eagles offense in the Super Bowl as slot receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz destroyed the Patriots on routes over the middle of the field. So there was a need to upgrade at that position.
There’s also a potential long-term need at safety as two of the team’s most valuable players, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, are both on the wrong side of 30. Dawson may not be a traditional safety, but he has the versatility to eventually take on a role that resembles Chung’s as a slot defender and in-the-box safety.
Below, I’ll take a look at Dawson’s film and explain why he was the Patriots’ selection in round two of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Mirroring in Press-Man Coverage
(second play - lined up in the outside slot at top of screen, makes tackle)
Arguably the most essential skill for a Patriots corner is having the ability to mirror opposing receivers in man coverage and disrupt receivers in press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Dawson was terrific in this regard throughout his tape, especially when lined up in the slot. He has quick feet and can get away with his grabby nature when he’s within five yards of the line scrimmage, and his ability to read routes and key on certain tells from wide receivers was impressive. His intelligence allows him to make up for some of his athletic deficiencies and you often see him jump routes over the middle and make a play on the football. Dawson’s best game of the 2017 season came against Texas A&M and new Cardinals slot receiver Christian Kirk. Dawson held Kirk to just one catch for four yards in coverage. Overall, Dawson allowed a passer rating of only 37.1 into his coverage last season, which was the sixth-lowest among draft-eligible cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus.
Intelligence in Zone Coverage
Another area of Dawson’s game that stood out and will fit in well with the Patriots is his play in zone coverage. Dawson is tremendous at diagnosing route concepts, keeping his head on a swivel and breaking on the ball when it comes his direction. You’ll often see him jump underneath routes, sniff out passing concepts and close on ball carriers quickly. His eyes are always darting around the defensive backfield looking for work. The Patriots depend on their defensive backs to have the ability to play both zone or man. Dawson fits that description perfectly.
Versatility to Play In The Box
In Nick Caserio’s press conference following the Dawson selection, the Patriots’ Director of Player Personnel praised his new cornerback for playing multiple positions in the Florida defense. Dawson played outside corner, slot corner and safety as a Gator. He likely won’t play as an outside corner or a deep safety in the Patriots system often, but he has the flexibility to play in the box in a hybrid safety role. This allows Dawson to cover running backs out of the backfield and carry tight ends down the middle of the field. This is the role that the Patriots envisioned Jordan Richards in when they drafted him in 2015, and a similar role to Patrick Chung’s at times. It didn’t work out for Richards, but I’m optimistic that it will work for Dawson.
I have my concerns about Dawson’s open-field tackling, but his effort in run support is never in question. Dawson’s a willing tackler that will insert himself into the run game and chase ball carriers until they’re on the ground. He doesn’t shy away from contact and has some huge hits on tape. Dawson will need to improve his form as a tackler to be an effective run stopper in the NFL (more wrapping, less leading with the shoulder), but he’ll give it his all on every play.
After reviewing Dawson’s tape, I’m more optimistic about his future with the Patriots.
He still has some concerning tendencies and athletic limitations that he’ll need to overcome at the next level, but he has the makings of a solid slot corner in the NFL.
The Patriots prioritizing the slot cornerback position shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As stated earlier, they were one of the worst teams in the NFL at defending the slot last season, and slot corners are essentially starters in today’s NFL.
NFL offenses spend the majority of time in three-wide receiver sets nowadays, and defenses predominantly play in nickel. The value of slot corners even started to trickle into free agency this offseason when Aaron Colvin (4 years, $34M), Patrick Robinson (4 years, $20M) and Nickell Robey-Coleman (3 years, $15.7M) all received lucrative deals.
As for Dawson, if he can provide a steady presence in the slot for the Patriots, it will have a trickle-down effect that will significantly improve the secondary. Dawson’s ability to line up across from slot receivers will allow Patrick Chung to return to a more natural role as an in-the-box safety covering tight ends and skilled receiving backs. It will also bump Jordan Richards off the field seeing that Dawson will hopefully be their sixth defensive back.
Plus, by all accounts, Dawson will fit in very well with the Patriot way down at Gillette Stadium. From the people that I’ve spoken with down in Gainesville, Dawson was one of the hardest workers on the team and a leader of the secondary even when stuck behind other future NFL players on the depth chart. His preparation and effort show up on game day.
The Patriots may have reached to get their guy, but there’s reason to be hopeful that this second-round reach will work out better than others in the past.