The Buffalo Bills needed a spark.
It was Week 3 of the regular season, and the winless Cincinnati Bengals had taken the lead late in the fourth quarter at New Era Field.
A game that looked to be firmly in the Bills’ grasp was slipping away. That’s when Dawson Knox came through. The Bills’ rookie tight end hauled in a pass from Josh Allen near midfield and took off toward the Bengals’ end zone.
First, Knox used a vicious stiff arm to send the Bengals’ Shawn Williams to the turf. Next, Knox lowered his head and ran through Bengals safety Jessie Bates III. By the time the play was over, Knox got the Bills down to the Bengals’ 22-yard line, in range for the go-ahead touchdown in what at the time was a must-win game.
That one play encapsulated everything the Bills liked about Knox coming out of college at Ole Miss. The speed. The athleticism. Most of all, the power.
“He made some big plays for us,” General Manager Brandon Beane said of Knox. “I think we’ll all remember the Cincinnati play he made when we were down in that game and needed a big one.”
Knox wasn’t supposed to be in that spot so early in his pro career. The Bills signed former Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft last offseason with the idea of him taking over as the starter at the position. Kroft, though, missed the rematch against his old team as he recovered from a broken foot suffered in the spring. That pushed Knox into the spotlight perhaps sooner than anticipated, which didn’t up being a bad thing.
“I thought he did a nice job being thrown in as a rookie,” Beane said. “For him, it was probably a blessing that Tyler got hurt, so he got more reps. Not all those reps came out the way he wanted, but again, he got experience. … I know he'll be the first to tell you he left a few out there, but like where he's at.”
Knox was charged with nine drops in 2019, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, which ranked tied for fourth in the NFL. If that gets cleaned up, though, he could be something the Bills have rarely, if ever, had in franchise history: A dominant tight end.
Knox finished 2019 with 28 catches for 388 yards, second among rookie tight ends in the league, and two touchdowns. It’s reasonable to expect he’ll build on those numbers in 2020.
“We have all the tools to make a run,” Knox said toward the end of the 2019 season. “I think we are going to be around here for a while, and we're all pretty excited about it.”
Knox’s presence presents an interesting question when it comes to the Greg Olsen Watch.
The former Carolina Panthers’ tight end was scheduled to finish making free-agent visits this week, with a stop in Seattle coming after previous trips to see the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins.
Olsen is a 13-year NFL veteran with 718 receptions, 8,444 yards and 59 touchdowns on his resume. He’d be, by far, the Bills’ most accomplished tight end if he were to sign.
He might not be the starter, though, after the rookie season Knox put together.
“I feel like I've been able to play a little faster, just being able to read safeties a little quicker,” Knox said. “I feel like my timing with Josh has gotten a little better.”
Little things like that can add up to big results, especially considering the start to Knox’s first training camp was slowed by a hamstring injury. It wasn’t until the team’s third preseason game against the Lions that he stepped onto the field against a different opponent.
“I didn't even have any catches that game I don't think, but just getting out there on the playing field, I mean it just felt like another game,” Knox said. “It just felt like what we did during practice. That was kind of the moment I knew I would be able to do that at this level. Just trying to keep that mindset of trying to win every day. That's kind of what I had to do at Ole Miss as a walk-on. Come in, try and outwork everybody. Not looking back on yesterday and not trying to think about tomorrow, but just focusing on one day at a time.”
Even after Kroft returned, Knox was never seriously challenged as the starter. He played 646 offensive snaps during the regular season. Veteran blocking tight end Lee Smith was next at the position with 319.
The Bills completely changed their tight end depth chart last offseason, save for bringing Jason Croom back. More change could be in store this year, starting with what Olsen decides as a free agent.
The team could also create more space under the salary cap by releasing either Kroft (a savings of $4.2 million) or Smith ($2.25 million).
No matter what happens, the future of the position figures to prominently feature Knox.
“I’ve slowly tried to stack good weeks on good weeks,” he said. “Try to get one part of my game just a little better.”
The next challenge will be to stack good seasons.