This is the first part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today’s question: Do the Bills have a good answer at left tackle?
Dion Dawkins played 99.8% of the offensive snaps for the Buffalo Bills last season. He missed only two of 1,059 plays.
The third-year left tackle knows that’s not going to happen this year unless he picks up his performance.
“I’d say for this season, I’m a different player," Dawkins said as the Bills spring practices drew to a close. “I’m taking it extremely serious because I understand every day my job is on that line. One thing wrong, we have guys who can jump in. That’s something that I can’t afford to let happen. I’m taking every step very carefully and just being me.”
The Bills would like to see Dawkins put a vice-grip on the left tackle job. He took virtually all the snaps with the first team at the position during the spring.
However, unlike last season when there was no serious threat to his job, the team signed a viable “Plan B” if Dawkins falters. That’s 33-year-old Ty Nsekhe, the free-agent acquisition from the Washington Redskins.
Are either Dawkins or Nsekhe good enough to be an above-average starter protecting the blindside of quarterback Josh Allen?
That’s a key question that will bear watching through training camp, preseason and the first month or so of the season.
It’s also an important question for the team’s long-term roster planning. If neither Dawkins nor Nsekhe play like quality starters this year, the Bills likely will have to make a big investment – either in free agency or with a high draft pick – in an offensive tackle in 2020.
After a promising rookie year in 2017, Dawkins was not good enough last season, by his own admission. He was responsible for seven sacks and partially responsible for four others, according to News charting. He had given up only three sacks as a rookie. Dawkins’ 34 allowed pressures tied for 21st among NFL tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Dawkins is in better shape than a year ago.
“Last season I definitely played heavier,” he said. “I played at around 327, 328. This season I’m planning on playing between 319 and 321. That’s the weight I feel most comfortable and I think I’m at my best.”
Last season’s wake-up call reinforced his need to become more a student of the game. Dawkins has used the mantra “What would Zo do?” in reference to Bills elder statesman Lorenzo Alexander, as a guiding principle.
“If we were done early last year,” Dawkins says, “I would easily say, 'OK, I have a couple of hours extra or I have an hour and a half extra, I’m outta here.' Now I’m using that time. I’m in the training room. I’m getting stretched. I’m in the hot tub. I’m in the cold tub. I’m getting extra treatment to maintain my body. I’m doing extra things in the weight room to stay at my best.”
The plan is better conditioning will help him stay in better leverage positions against defenders. Dawkins was called for only four penalties as a rookie. Last year, he was flagged for 15, tied for second in the league.
“Penalties happen when guys are tired,” Dawkins said. “That’s when your technique causes you to get lax and do things that aren’t meant to be done. I’m taking everything more serious, my conditioning, my training and my body. I really feel like my body is getting in the best shape of my life. Hopefully this season it will show. I’m shooting for none. I’m shooting for those low, low numbers.”
At 6-foot-3 and 7/8, Dawkins is a tad shorter than the ideal tackle height that NFL scouts seek, but his arm length (35 inches) is elite. When his technique is right, that helps him steer speed rushers beyond the quarterback.
Meanwhile, Nsekhe is capable of pushing Dawkins on the left side or holding down the starting spot on the right side if second-round draft pick Cody Ford isn’t ready to start to open the season.
The 6-8 Nsekhe got good reviews in fill-in starts for the Redskins the past several years, but it’s a stretch to think he can play at the level of Cordy Glenn in his Bills prime. Nsekhe started three games at left tackle last season for Washington, four in 2017, four in 2016 and two in 2015.
If nothing else, his presence appears to have ignited a greater sense of urgency in Dawkins.