There were many demons exercised on the play - and it was potentially the defining moment in a season of big ones. The Frogs had struggled on their home field in Big 12 play for the past two seasons - and the mighty Sooners were in town, possessing a #5 ranking and a chance to spoil the conference opener for the Frogs yet again. But with the score tied at 31 and the Sooners driving, Paul Dawson dropped back in to coverage, read QB Trevor Knight's eyes, reached up with two hands and snagged the ball out of mid-air. Then, harkening back to his high school wide receiver days, he raced towards the end zone, scoring a 41 yard TD and giving the Frogs a lead they would never relinquish. The win, which seemed like a monumental upset at the time, would be looked back on not as the seminal moment of the season, but the start of something truly special. And the lynchpin of the game, and in many ways the season, was linebacker Paul Dawson.
Dawson would go on to win Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors, posting 136 tackles, 20 TFL, five sacks, and four interceptions during his senior season. For a kid who was a high school wide receiver, then a JuCo WR, moved to defense after a few games his junior year, only to explode on to the scene with an unbelievable senior season, success seemed almost inevitable. But as the season ended and the draft preparation began, there were whispers among the media that PD was trouble. Unspecified character concerns were bandied about, and leading up to the combine, it seems Dawson's draft stock was plummeting as steeply as land values in Waco. Just a few weeks after being called the best linebacker in the class and a lock for the first round, Dawson was now sliding down draft boards with no real explanation being given. With all the rumors swirling, his combine numbers didn't help his cause; though it seems he interviewed well, he didn't test where expected - running poorly with a 4.96 40 yard dash and 4.49 shuttle - which all but cemented his status outside the first round. And while he improved his numbers at his Pro Day (4.75 40, 30" vertical, and 6.76 3-cone drill), scouts views were still all over the map as far as if he was a risk worth taking early. Dawson addressed those issues after his TCU Pro Day performance:
So will the positives outweigh the negatives for the Frog's best hope at a round one pick this year? The old adage of "the film doesn't lie" is PD's best hope for yes, as his highlight reel is quite impressive. I dare you to watch and not get a little emotional reliving some of the best moments of his senior year, and one of the greatest seasons in TCU history:
Dawson has the stats and the athleticism that the league looks for - extraordinarily flexible, he has incredibly fluid hip movement and exceptional agility, giving him the ability to juke blockers and run free to the backfield. He has good sideline to sideline speed, and despite his subpar 40 time, he plays faster in pads and has shown the ability to chase down running backs and run with wide receivers. The former wide receiver maintains the good feet of his former position, with good burst and great quick twitch, allowing him to change directions on a dime. He also has a great understanding of route running, which helps him in pass coverage, where opposing QBs complete less than 36% of passes against him, something almost unheard of for a linebacker in coverage. As far as weaknesses - while no one disputes that he plays hard and practices harder, there is a question over his film study commitment; Dawson will tell you he watched film long after the coaches have left, but the pro scouts seem to have some doubts. The character concerns, which Dawson writes off as mostly tardies, are being credited to him being a "problem child" for TCU - something that has not been confirmed publicly by the coaching staff for the Frogs. While he plays with exceptional instinct and unquestionably has the natural understanding and high football IQ required of a middle linebacker, his lack of ideal size has scouts worried that his need to rely on speed over power will leave him on his back against the bigger, stronger NFL linemen.
Ultimately, if you spend any time in the film room watching Paul Dawson, it's easy to see this young man being a first round pick, a potential Pro Bowler, and at the very least, a player with a long, productive professional career. The question marks around his commitment to the process raise valid points, but compared to the total meltdown being experienced by some of his defensive counterparts leading up to the Draft (I mean, say what you want about the crime, but how incredibly stupid do you have to be to get caught with drugs two days before you stand to make 20 million dollars???), they don't seem all that concerning. His one recorded failed drug test was for Adderall, and he was granted a prescription shortly thereafter. While his Combine and Pro Day numbers don't jump off the page, he has football speed and plays a lot faster in pads.
So where will Dawson land? SB Nation has him sliding deep in to the second round, teaming up with another former Frog, Andy Dalton, in Cincinnati at pick #53. Walter Football has him being picked in the third, falling all the way to the Denver Broncos at 92. Todd McShay may have made the most interesting call - giving PD to the Cardinals in the second round as a replacement for suspended former TCU linebacker Daryl Washington. I can see Dawson sneaking in to the first round - he would be a great fit for the Patriots at 32, but if he does slide in to the second round, the 49ers at 46 need serious help at the second level, the Saints at 44 would be a good fit with Rob Ryan at the helm, or the Eagles at 52 like to play small and fast. I don't see how he falls past the bottom of the second round, where NE could steal him late if they pass on him in the first, or Seattle would be a great fit at 63. Ultimately, whoever picks Dawson and wherever they do so, they will be getting one of the country's most productive defensive players and a young man with the talent to be an impact guy on D from day one.