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Broncos Film Room: Meet the new Duke in town

Andre Simone Avatar
September 9, 2019

Much like real Denver Broncos football is back, so is our series ‘Broncos Film Room,’ as we’ll once again scour the tape every week to find matchups, individual performances, and schematic trends that stand out to us.

After breaking down every move the Broncos made this offseason, we now have some catching up to do with seven players added to the final 53-man roster.

The first player we went back to watch was new cornerback Duke Dawson, a former standout for the Florida Gators who was drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots in 2018.

Dawson is one of many new additions to Denver’s secondary and could be counted on sooner rather than later depending on Bryce Callahan’s status. 

Given Dawson’s injury-riddled rookie season, we went back and relied heavily on his college and 2019 preseason tape, studying him closely in four games including his latest preseason performance in Week 4 for New England.

Without further ado, here’s what we saw in the second-year player, what he still needs to work on, and how he’ll fit in Vic Fangio’s defense.

Enjoy!

Why Dawson?

The former Gator was clearly a Broncos target as final roster cuts were being made around the league, and while it’s an indictment of his skills that the Patriots would give up on him only a year after moving up to take him 56th overall in the 2018 draft, his skills and pedigree are enticing.

In college, Dawson jumped off the page for his 208-pound build stacked on his shorter 5-foot-11 frame, built more like a safety and playing with a linebacker’s aggression. His abilities as a press corner always stood out, as he jammed receivers at the line with ferocity, disrupting routes before they could even unfold.

His tackling could be rugged, with an intensity that willed him to always be involved against the run, at times, to a fault. Florida’s No. 7 could be counted on to blow up screens and fly downhill when the action was in front of him on shallow zones.

Combine those two traits with his ability to play competently outside and in the slot, and it’s easy to see why the Broncos went after the former first-team All-SEC standout.

Dawson’s three “jump off the screen” skills should sound familiar by now, as they’re exactly what stood out about Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, the other two defensive backs brought to the Mile High City to strengthen Vic Fangio’s secondary.

Versatile, aggressive cornerbacks who are willing tacklers are what Fangio’s defense requires, and when you combine the trio to Chris Harris Jr., the Ol’ Ball Coach has an abundance of chess pieces to confuse quarterbacks and frustrated receivers.

Like Callahan, who came from Rice and didn’t necessarily possess Dawson’s same measurables, the former Patriot is a standout athlete who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash.

As you’d expect, the Cross City, Florida native isn’t afraid to mix it up with bigger receivers, smothering them at the line, staying in their back pocket and always challenging wideouts when high-pointing the ball.

When his eyes are on point, Dawson will track the ball and has flashed promising ball skills as highlighted by five interceptions and 16 pass breakups in his final two seasons with the Gators. 

Just a week ago, in his final preseason appearance with the Patriots, he had a pick and three pass deflections.

What’s unusual about Dawson is how the ball seemed to always find him, or rather, how he always seemed to be around the action and managed to come up with unthinkable tipped ball interceptions.

At first, it seemed like simple dumb luck.

But the more it happened in both college and the pros, it’s clear that Dawson’s always got his eyes on the ball and is stalking the action in front of him. All traits that allow him to come up with seemingly fluky interceptions on a fairly regular basis.

Part of this is that Dawson has a terrific motor, willing himself to always be around the ball and make timely plays. Even as a last line of defense, Denver’s new addition can come up with crucial stops, running down plays on the backside.

Overall, Duke’s instincts are promising when facing the action, a key in more zone heavy looks in Denver’s new defense.

He closes the cushion in a hurry and has active hands, always trying to make a play on the rock.

On paper, Dawson has everything you look for in a starting NFL cornerback. He has enough size, possesses the requisite fluidity and speed, is aggressive, has intriguing ball skills, is more than willing to fill against the run, and most important of all is versatile, having played plenty of snaps both as a boundary and nickel corner.

For a largely unproven entity at the NFL level, he checks off a lot of boxes. It’s easy to see why the Broncos decided to take a shot on him.

There’s still work to be done

Dawson’s greatest strength is also, in many ways, his greatest weakness.

That aforementioned aggression can get him in trouble time and time again, resulting in unnecessary flags, as he just can’t keep his hands to himself.

The overly-handsy cover man can also be far too sudden in flying downhill to tackle against the run, resulting in whiffed tackles that open up highways down the sideline. These are often a result of bad angles to the ball and poor tackling technique, as Dawson will lunge at ball carriers shoulder-first, instead of focusing on wrapping up.

Dawson’s eye disciple will need to improve, especially when he’s turning and running after targets. He’s much better attacking downhill, though he needs to be more methodical and disciplined in his approach, taking sound angles to the ball and stop playing so reckless. 

Because of this, Dawson can be susceptible to double moves and lose leverage on in-cutting routes, a real issue for someone who’ll be tasked with covering the slot.

His hands have also not shined on tape, as he struggles to secure the ball and should’ve had a few more picks in his time in the SEC. 

All these concerns made it so that Dawson was only our 163rd ranked prospect in his draft class, behind Isaac Yiadom—though, in the same ‘day-three’ tier—as only the 20th cornerback in a loaded 2018 crop.

How he fits?

Dawson might be similar to Jackson, Callahan, and Harris Jr. in his aggression and versatility but he brings a different element to Yiadom and De’Vante Bausby, the two cornerbacks he’ll be competing against for snaps this season.

Yiadom and Bausby possess more length and are pure boundary coverage guys, Dawson can still be used as an outside-press corner, but this acquisition feels more like Callahan insurance.

Considering the former Chicago Bear has yet to appear in an official game in Orange & Blue, it’s unclear how much he can be counted on this season. With Jackson slotted to play as a safety full time, the addition of Dawson gives Fangio more options, especially in nickel. 

While Dawson’s instincts and discipline in zone coverage must be groomed, he promises to fit well in Fangio’s scheme, where his ability to make plays when facing the action should fit nicely.

The bigger “fit” question is how Dawson will do when asked to play off-coverage, where he hasn’t been utilized much and couldn’t be physical at the line.

Ultimately, the price Denver paid, swapping a sixth-round pick for a seventh, seems worth the price for a player New England valued so highly a year ago.

Plus, Dawson’s tackling and athleticism should make for an immediate upgrade on special teams, which can’t be underestimated given how poor the team looked covering kicks this preseason. 

It’ll be an uphill battle to challenge Yiadom or Bausby for snaps early, but you can never have enough cornerbacks in the modern NFL. A lesson Elway had to learn the hard way in 2018 when the Broncos were playing street free agents and safeties at the position.  

If Dawson reaches his full potential, this will be a key addition, if that’s not the case, he’s a valuable depth piece who ensures the defense can still be as creative as “the Godfather” likes.

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