With A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones being released this offseason and signing elsewhere, the Green Bay Packers head into the 2015 NFL Draft with a glaring hole at inside linebacker.
One candidate to fill Hawk's shoes is 6-foot, 235-pound Paul Dawson out of TCU. Long story short, Dawson had a very productive 2014 on the field (13 games, 136 total tackles, 20 for a loss, plus 4 INT), but was slow and sloppy at the combine (4.93 40, 28.0" vertical, did not participate in 3-cone drill).
The ILBs currently on the roster lack pedigree and experience. Sam Barrington (7th round pick), Carl Bradford (4th) and Nate Palmer (6th) could all see major playing time this year, which might not be a good thing. Ted Thompson could select a player like Dawson as a value pick at the end of one of the early rounds of the draft. There will probably be many ILBs to choose from including Denzel Perryman, and Dawson represents just one of many options.
Will he be available at pick #30?
CBS Sports projects Dawson to be a 2nd-3rd round selection; however, Pro Football Talk called him "perhaps the best linebacker in the draft." His NFL.com scouting report says he is "not beloved" by the TCU program and that there are questions about his "commitment to the process."
A lot of it will come down to how teams cope with Dawson's worrisome performance at the combine, which drew such negative attention that Dawson felt compelled to tweet about it:
I'm an awesome football player. The best/most productive linebacker in this draft. Not a track Star. #meetmeonthefield— Paul Dawson Jr (@PjDawson47) February 22, 2015
So what made him such a hot prospect before the combine?
Dawson's career at TCU actually had a really nice crescendo: he started off as a junior college transfer in 2012 and led the team in special teams tackles. He took another step in 2013, starting half the team's games and leading the team in tackles with 91. Last year, he earned national attention on his way to claiming the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Getting a player on the upswing of his career is usually a good thing. But the 4.93 time will haunt teams if Dawson cannot make the jump to the next level. 4.93 is a scary number for a Packers team whose defense frequently got burned by a lack of athleticism up the middle. Keep in mind that A.J Hawk ran a 4.59, and fans thought he was slow.
You said he had a redeeming pro day?
Dawson was clearly bothered by his combine performance, which according to Walter Football was affected by a minor injury suffered on his first 40 attempt. He showed up five pounds lighter to his pro day, and brought his 40-time down to a reasonable 4.75 seconds. No doubt Dawson's camp hopes the pro day will get people's attention off his 40 time and back on his strengths.
What are those strengths, again?
NFL.com says Dawson is a player with "outstanding instincts" who is a "second-level ghost" and a "nightmare for offensive linemen to engage." Take a look at the play below:
The positive spin on this tape would be that Dawson helped contain the play to the outside while avoiding getting blocked. Dawson's 40 times, however, may make teams go back to the tape to see if Dawson's speed prevented him from shooting the gap as the trailing linebacker, since he already had help over the top of the play.
Decisions in traffic are made in split seconds, and TCU still stopped the running back behind the LOS on this play. But it takes a different type of speed to excel in the NFL, and whether Dawson has it or not is a huge question at this point.
So should we want him or not?
After 9 years of consistent, but not flashy, play from A.J. Hawk, you get the sense fans want a little more explosiveness from their middle linebackers. If Ted Thompson agrees, he might shy away from a player like Dawson. On the other hand, the last 9 years were pretty good, and someone will need to replace the 100+ tackles Hawk averaged each season he was here.