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Scouting report: Broncos' seventh-round pick Riley Dixon

Andre Simone Avatar
May 2, 2016

 

Riley Dixon, Punter, Syracuse, (6-foot-4, 220 pounds)

With their last pick in the draft’s seventh-round the Broncos picked Riley Dixon, the Syracuse punter who was second-team All-ACC (this guy wasn’t the best punter in his own conference!) and not the unanimous second best Punter in the class (for most people that was Utah’s Tom Hackett, more on him in a second). On the surface, when I saw the pick I was very skeptical, if not downright pessimistic. For starters he’s a punter, you typically can pick up a punter as an undrafted free-agent and he’ll be a top-three talent in the class. Secondly, because it’s not good draft value to take a punter any time in the draft. When the Broncos selected Dixon with their last pick there, was still lots of talent still left on the board, several of which were players with starter ability in positions of need (most importantly inside linebacker). So first impressions were negative, but that was all on paper.

Once I started to dig into Riley Dixon, I found out that first and foremost he’s a cult hero to Syracuse football fans, with even a half-assed Heisman campaign being started for him. He’s a true legend for some Cuse fans and not just because of his punting (please, I beg you, click on this video it’s the greatest punter highlight tape you’ll ever see. You won’t regret it, I promise). Dixon, at a certain point, has a perfect 100-percent conversion rate on fake punts and field goals where he was asked to run or even pass the ball. He isn’t built like a punter and looks more like a tall receiver and has the athleticism to match (see his hurdle against LSU!), he was a true trick play weapon for Syracuse. Dixon is also an extremely reliable holder with good hands who can handle awkward snaps, the added element of surprise that he has as a runner and passer is a bonus in those situations also, making him a true special teams ace.

Dixon is praised for his hang time on punts which is probably his best quality, his combination of hang time and depth is what’s allowed him to have such success (important at altitude where you’ll get some added distance), he forced 88 fair catches in the last three seasons (42 percent of punts in 2015 were fair caught). He’s praised for being a very successful directional punter (placed 43-percent of his punts inside the 20 yard line) who’s extremely accurate and has had great success in avoiding touchbacks (only nine in the last two years) both of these qualities could be especially important in Denver, where the altitude allows for more distance and ball placement and hang time are most important. Dixon’s most impressive accomplishment in his final season at Syracuse was limiting over 78-percent of his punts to not being returned (51 of 65 attempts).

While you might assume that any punter that is going to be drafted is close to perfect, that’s not the case, and certainly isn’t with Dixon, who’s far from a lock to make Denver’s roster and is being picked to push Britton Colquitt and fight for the punting job in camp. Dixon’s biggest weakness is that he doesn’t have a “booming” leg, or certainly not elite kicking power. He averaged 43.7 yards per punt in 2015, for comparison NFL leader Johnny Hekker averaged 47.9 yards per punt, Dixon’s average distance on kicks would have been only the 27th best in the NFL last season (interestingly enough, Colquitt averaged 43.6 yards). Some are questioning whether he has enough leg for the league, because of his averages and that he played in a dome without having to deal with wind or other elements. Some of those issues seem to have been tempered as he impressed at the Senior Bowl throughout the week of practice and in the game. With many praising the way he was “booming” punts and how chiseled and big he was.

While passing on Ray Guy award winner Tom Hackett is a debatable decision (Hackett averaged 48 yards per punt, is new to the sport and could have some more upside). Even though I’m a much bigger believer and fan of Dixon now than when the selection was originally made, the draft value of a punter remains questionable at best.

However, seventh-rounders are really a way of assuring priority undrafted free agents are yours, and the difference between a seventh-rounder and an undrafted free agent is truly minimal. Considering the Broncos desire to get out from under Colquitt’s $4 million cap figure, this choice makes sense, even if it wasn’t the best value possible and there might have been better options at the position.

Given that Dixon’s weakness (ie: a booming leg) seems to be lessened at altitude, that the Broncos used a draft pick on him and Colquitt’s uncomfortably high contract, there’s a good chance Dixon is the Broncos punter starting next year and into the future. If that’s the case, he might just become a cult hero like he was to Syracuse fans.

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