This is the next in a series analyzing the Buffalo Bills’ most significant questions entering the offseason. Part 9: Is Dion Dawkins a legitimate starter at left tackle?
Dion Dawkins doesn’t need anyone to tell him he didn’t perform nearly as well in his second season with the Bills as he did in his first.
He’s more than willing to rip his own performance to shreds.
“I don’t know if most players would say what I’m about to say, but I put myself in a position which leaves a lot of air in the air for my future from that last season,” Dawkins told The Buffalo News by phone. “I feel like my rookie season, I had a hell of a year, I had a heck of a year. I put a lot of trust in my coaches and my teammates.
“My second season, I feel like that I have put some doubt in my coaches' eyes, just because I feel like I took the foot off the gas pedal a little bit, which comes with growing as a player. I kind of got comfortable. Well, actually, I did get comfortable. And I shouldn't have.”
In 2017, after joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick from Temple, Dawkins played in 16 games and made 11 starts at left tackle in place of oft-injured Cordy Glenn. Video analysis by The News showed that Dawkins was responsible for three sacks. He was called for only three accepted penalties for minus 30 yards.
In 2018, after the Bills traded Glenn to the Cincinnati Bengals, Dawkins became the team’s No. 1 left tackle. In 16 starts, he was responsible for seven sacks and partially responsible for four others. He was called for 11 accepted penalties (15 overall) for minus 91 yards, tying him for second most in the league with Houston Texans tackle Julie'n Davenport.
“I wasn't fully there, from my first year to my second year. It could have been a whole lot better,” Dawkins said. “A lot of penalties, a lot of just little mistakes that are easily corrected. Like, on the pass plays that I lost on in pass pro, it was all little stuff like I should have never kicked out, I should have (taken) a better angle and punched on a better time than (he did). Just little things.
“I’m actually glad that I had the season that I did, which was, I would say, an average season, not a season that I’m capable of doing, because I know the player that I can be and I will be. But I'm glad that I'm, I would say, on the hot seat because I’ve always been a part of a team or a program with our backs against the wall. And when that happens, a different player, a different person comes out of me.”
The question is, will that person be at the same position? Even after a highly impressive senior year in college, Dawkins was seen by some NFL talent evaluators and coaches as more of a right tackle than a left tackle. Some even thought that, at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, he was better suited for guard, where he played briefly at Temple.
As part of the reason the Bills ranked 30th in the NFL in total offense and 31st in passing offense, Dawkins can’t be viewed as any more of a lock to stay put than his linemates. Working with nearly $84 million in salary-cap space, the Bills are expected to rely heavily on free agency to address problem areas, with offensive line easily at the top of the list. It’s hardly outside of the realm of possibility that they would acquire a left tackle and move Dawkins to the right side if not to guard.
But Dawkins is quick to challenge any notion that he has been in the wrong spot as a pro.
“I know that I am a left tackle,” he said. “I’m athletic, I can do everything (a left tackle needs to do). I have long arms. I'm just not 6-7. I just don't have that that crazy left tackle ideal height.
“But, as far as playing, I know that I have it. It's just, whatever these coaches think, it's whatever. But it's my story to tell.”
One presumed casualty of Dawkins’ second-year slump was veteran offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who was fired after his second season with the Bills. The team has yet to officially announce the dismissal or name a replacement, but it has been widely speculated that Castillo took the bulk of the blame for Dawkins’ struggles.
Dawkins expresses remorse for Castillo’s firing. He also emphatically defends the work of his former position coach.
“Juan is a great coach and if it wasn't for Juan, my rookie season would have never been the way that it was,” Dawkins said. “Juan changed the entire way that I pass set and that run-block and that I think. And that second year, I just kind of thought, 'OK, I've got this,' which I really didn't.
"If it wasn't for Juan, I would never be playing left tackle. Nobody thought that I could play (left tackle). Everyone thought, 'Oh, Dion is a guard ... Dion is a right tackle.' But, no, that first year proved it. In the second year, it was average, but it should have been better.
"Juan is a special coach. In this league, one little mess-up and everything changes. So now that I know that, I can never allow that again because everybody's job is on the line and everybody has to do their one-11th for this thing to get going. I let Juan down, but it really wasn't Juan's fault. It was mine.”
Dawkins is no stranger to line-coach changes. At Temple, it happened after his freshman year and, again, after his junior season.
“Then (as a senior) I had George DeLeone, and when I got George, I was a top offensive lineman,” Dawkins said. “So it's just a process and it's just a part of life. I mean, every new coaching change is (a case of having to) adapt, but whatever happens is really supposed to happen. So I'm just taking it as I'll just have an open mind and just try to get out of what Juan coached for a little bit and just do whatever this coach asks.”
A large part of the duties of the Bills’ next O-line coach will be to help Dawkins rebound from his 2018 season, regardless of where Dawkins lines up. And he seems to be approaching the challenge with considerable enthusiasm.
“I’m actually really excited to see how I handle it and how my next season goes, because it’ll be special,” he said. “I understand what it takes and I understand that no one is ever safe. With that being said, I just know what I'm going to do to make myself that solid piece, the never-doubted player, the leader, the person that the coaches (saw) in me when they traded away Corey.
“I just have to stay consistent in everything that I'm doing for the coaches to regain all of their trust.”