Dawson Knox: 'I want to be in the conversation with the elite of the elite'
He already shattered the odds to get to this point. Why stop now? The Buffalo Bills tight end is aiming for even bigger things in 2022, and gives Go Long the full inside look.
Good morning, readers!
What a month, eh?
Free agency has been particularly insane this 2022 NFL offseason with manic quarterback movement in both conferences. If we’ve learned anything, however, the players worth paying attention to most are often the ones already under contract. Players with something to prove.
Before the madness began, Go Long chatted at length with one such rising star: Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox. Not too long after the Bills’ crushing playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Knox detailed his rise from playing two quarters of high school football to walking on at Ole Miss to earning the No. 1 tight end spot in Buffalo. Statistically, he’s on track to be one of, if not the best tight end in franchise history. In 15 regular-season games last season, Knox caught 49 passes for 587 yards with nine touchdowns.
A fractured hand in October didn’t slow him down, either, as Knox blossomed into one of Josh Allen’s go-to targets. Considering Cole Beasley was released and Emmanuel Sanders is a free agent, count on Knox’s role increasing in Year 4 — even with the addition of tight end O.J. Howard. In this hourlong conversation, we dug into just about everything:
How Knox got noticed as a walk-on at Ole Miss, a “walk-on mentality” he lost briefly in the pros and needed to rediscover.
GM Brandon Beane’s criticism last offseason. It lit a fuse.
After a rough 2020, Knox worked with an eye specialist and it took his game to a new level.
Was he really flicking Allen off on that two-point pass at Tennessee? How did it feel to ram through the Bengals defense as a rookie in 2019, too?
Why he believes his name can soon be mentioned right with Travis Kelce and George Kittle at tight end.
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Knox: It’s still devastating. It’s hard to wrap your head around what really happened. Gosh, it was tough. It’s tough watching the games now thinking of how close we were. We have a good team. The future’s bright.
Once the dust settles, things are pretty good in Buffalo.
Knox: Right. I think Ken Dorsey will be great stepping up as OC now, too. Everyone loves him so he’ll do a good job.
What’s he like? It seems like he did a lot behind the scenes.
Knox: Yeah, Josh loves him. Obviously he was the quarterbacks coach for the last couple of years. And everyone that’s been in the quarterback room just loves the guy. I didn’t have a ton of interaction with him, but he’s a great dude, he’s funny, he’s super smart, too. He was the guy at “The U” when they were going to national championships every year. So, it’s cool to see that come full circle for him. I think he’s going to do a great job calling plays. Especially with where Josh is now, Josh will have the reins a little bit, too.
After four, five, six years, he’ll probably have more autonomy at the line of scrimmage to do what he wants to do. And when he’s trying to throw it away, he can throw you some touchdowns.
Knox: Right? I told him, “We need a couple more throwaways next year.”
Your football life, when you think back to where it all began with the tight end position and you realized this was for you, when would that have been?
Knox: So, I didn’t start playing tight end until my freshman year of college. I was a quarterback through most of my football career, up until then. The first position I played was running back and defensive end back in fifth and sixth grade football. I played quarterback in middle school, all the way through high school, and didn’t have a whole lot of experience because I had some injuries. Going into college, I walked on at Ole Miss and I knew I’d probably be making the position switch from quarterback to tight end. I didn’t know anything about it, but Evan Engram was there at the time at Ole Miss. He took me under his wing. I was able to see what he did and it was exciting to watch. He was an All-American and he had an incredible skill-set. So it was fun to see all of the creativity, and how he was used in the offense, and to see myself in that position one day.
But you’re probably not imagining yourself as a tight end through high school. When did you go through that mental switch in your mind that this was even possible?
Knox: I guess it was in-between graduating high school and going into college. I had a couple small offers to play quarterback. But I knew I wanted to really test myself at the highest level possible in college and I knew, in order to do that, I’d have to switch to tight end. So it was a mental switch. It’s so different than playing quarterback. That’s so much less physical but so much more mental. And then switching to tight end, you’ve got to block D-ends and then run routes against safeties. It’s a weird position. You’ve got to block guys who are bigger than you, and then go run away from guys who are smaller, quicker, faster. It is fun because you’ve got to be such a well-rounded athlete in all areas. If you look at the best athletes today. Travis and George. They’re so athletically gifted because they can block a guy who’s 280 pounds and then they can jump over safeties and catch touchdowns. It’s such a dynamic position, and it’s hard to compare the tight end position to anything else in football.
Is that what you liked about it?
Knox: Yeah, it was the versatility. I had never blocked anyone in my whole life. And then I started getting the technique down and started putting on some weight and got stronger. When you’re dominating a guy blocking, it’s almost just as fun catching touchdown passes because you are imposing your will on someone else who’s trying to beat you. It’s fun. It’s like a wrestling match. You can run someone over. Stiff-arm a guy. There’s nothing a tight end doesn’t do outside of throwing the ball.
When you’re learning how to block — in college — were there breakthrough moments for you? Because it’s something you never did. You’re doing it at the D-I level, too. When did you realize, “I can move somebody against his will?”
Knox: It was probably my second year at Ole Miss because I came in at 210 pounds my freshman year and I was having to block guys like Robert Nkemdiche, who is 280 pounds and a first-round draft pick. I was getting thrown around and was like, “OK, this isn’t for me.” But then putting on some weight and learning the technique, there would be some days at practice when I was getting the best of some of the D-linemen. Like, “OK, I can really do this.” That feeling of having the right technique and moving them backwards was a satisfying feeling that’s hard to describe. … As I was making the transition, my focus shifted from watching the quarterback all the time to watching guys like Rob Gronkowski. In my opinion, he’s the best to ever do it. Watching old tape of Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten. It was fun to watch how they did things. How they ran certain routes. How they used their feet and hands on different types of blocks. Watching Gronk and really watching the routes of Travis. Those were the two guys I watched the most when I started watching tight end film.
You’ve been in Buffalo since 2019, through the whole growth of the offense. How did you gain this rapport with Josh Allen?
Knox: It’s everything you do. You’re in the locker room. He’s so down to earth that it’s so easy to relate to him. We’re playing board games on the weekends and video games all the time. In the offseason, I go out to California to see him. Little things like that — hanging out off the field — is so important. And then just getting that extra work in, whether that’s OTAs in the summer or whether that’s when he flies us all into Miami to get a week of training in. It’s a combination. Doing the right thing every day in practice. Getting the timing right with him and earning his trust. There’s a long list of things that slowly start adding up to building that confidence with him, and knowing that he expects me to be in a certain place on a certain route. Like the time, he said he threw it away. I came to the sideline and said, “Hey, man, thanks for throwing it up and giving me a chance.” He was like, “I was throwing it away. I didn’t even know what happened.” Hopefully little things like that continue to grow.
Plus, you might have to flip him off on the field from time to time.
Knox: That was so funny, that picture. I don’t even know how that happened. If you watch the film, it was so quick that it didn’t even look like anything. But I don’t know what needed to work in here — (flips me off via Zoom) — to get the ball going.
So, it wasn’t on purpose?
Knox: No, no. I wish I could say it was. It’d be a better story. But, no. It wasn’t on purpose.
At the time, you were all busted up and you still had to throw the ball.
Knox: Yeah, he was trying to call it off. I was like, “What are you doing?” He said, “They called your pass.” And I had told him I broke my hand a couple plays before. He’s like, “They’re trying to call your pass. We can’t do it, we can’t do it.” We looked at the play clock and there were only like 15 seconds. So I said, “Screw it, let’s go. I can do it.” So I basically just shotput that thing out there. Thankfully, he was wide open. I was thinking I’d have to run it in. The play worked well. I was going to make it work somehow. The combination of some adrenaline and the Toradol, everything, it’ll get you going. It didn’t really start hurting until after the game. That loss was a heartbreaker, too. A QB sneak with him? He gets that every day of the week. But somehow he just slipped. We had a lot of games that could’ve gone either way this year that hopefully we’ll get going in our direction next season.
Cincy was when you sent someone into tomorrow, as a rookie, with the stiff-arm. What was that moment like? Anybody who saw that probably would’ve never guessed you grew up a quarterback.
Knox: I think that is my favorite thing about the tight end position. Catching the ball and knowing you’re going to be bigger than the secondary. So just being able to run a guy over, stiff-arm him, just embarrass guys. I saw him coming and said, “Oh, this is a perfect angle.” I put my hand right into his face. He was trying to knock it off. I sit him down. Stumbling and barely caught my feet. And then I saw the other safety coming in low and was like, “Oh, geez, I’ve got to brace for this one.” I don’t know what happened to him. He must’ve slipped. Because it looked worse on film than it felt. After that play, hearing the crowd like, “Ohhh!” that was probably the first moment of, “OK, I can really do this at this level.” So that play will always mean a lot to me.
You’ve got to do a lot of stuff at tight end that people don’t want to do. There’s a lot of grunt work mixed in there, so when you have a chance to posterize somebody, it probably makes it extra sweet.
Knox: Absolutely. As a tight end you need to pride yourself on doing whatever the team needs you to do to win. There were games I had zero catches but I felt like I blocked well and we won the game. The tight end is a very unselfish position because you can be jamming D-ends to help with pass protection. You can be picking up blitzing linebackers. And then you’re blocking guys in the run game. You can go the whole game without getting a ball thrown your way. But if you win, it’s one of those things where it’s awesome. I love that. We’ll take that every day of the week. Selfishly, competitively, you want to get the ball thrown to you all the time. You want to directly move the offense forward. But Coach McDermott does a great job of talking about doing your 1/11th. Doing your singular job every play to help the offense go in the direction it’s supposed to go.
Where were you at this point last year as you went into the offseason? It seemed like everyone viewed this offense as “a tight end away.” It was a position that people wanted. You were a name easily discarded as, “he’s not part of the plan.”
Knox: Last year, it was frustrating knowing that I was an afterthought in the offense. I wasn’t really featured to do much. I was still playing most of the game but I wasn’t getting play calls tailored to me. I wasn’t getting route concepts where I was the first guy Josh was looking at. Because I really hadn’t shown enough to get that respect from our offensive coordinator and Josh. So, I just knew I was going to have to earn confidence from them through the whole offseason. It was huge for me last year to go to California for four or five weeks, get extra reps in with Josh and then to be up in Buffalo for all of OTAs and to show them I’m dedicated to developing into the player they needed me to be for the offense. So, it was a slow trust-building process. After the first couple of games, getting a few more balls thrown to me and making big plays, it just started building that confidence with “Coach Dabes,” and he started giving me more play calls and Josh started looking for me more on different routes. So, it was a very gradual process that started as soon as the season ended last year.
When you lost to Kansas City last year, it was that instant?
Knox: I took about two weeks off to let my body recover and to reset. And then everything I did from there on out was with the focus of trying to become a premier tight end in the league. Whether that was going to do hand-eye coordination drills or doing extra run blocking with run-blocking specialists or doing the “Tight End U” deal. Everything I did last year was a totally different motivation I had after my rookie year. After my rookie year, I thought I had a solid year for a rookie and that I’d naturally make another jump after learning the offense. I was a little too complacent going into Year 2. I really didn’t have that same hunger that I had for most of my career — because as a walk-on you’ve got to fight harder than everybody just to have a spot. That’s what helped me so much in college. And then when I finally go to the league, I was a starter as a rookie. So, I went from being a walk-on to Day 1 in the league I’m a starting tight end. I lost that edge of trying to prove everyone wrong and just trying to outwork everyone. So going into Year 2, I still worked hard. Everyone in the league does. But I didn’t have that same walk-on mindset that helped me so much in college and helped me get to where I was at. So it was really a mental flip. I had to flip that switch. I guess it really was this time last year — to not just be happy being an OK starter. I wanted to be one of the elite guys when the tight end position was brought up. That’s the same mentality I’m going to take into this offseason, too. The second you start getting complacent is the second guys start taking peoples’ jobs.
How would you describe that walk-on mindset? I’m picturing you listening to an 8 Mile soundtrack and throwing weights around.
Knox: Exactly. As a walk-on, you know that no one expects anything of you. They think that you’re there just to put on a jersey to say you’re part of the team, to get a cool picture to show your kids one day to say, “Oh yeah, I was part of the team.” But in order to play you’ve really got to work harder than everybody else just to make a name for yourself. So it was extra workouts. It was getting there early. It was running routes after practice with the third-string quarterback. It was watching that extra film. It was literally all of those cliches of being the first one in the building and the last one out. The extra lifts. The extra film work. Really, you couldn’t do enough extra to catch up to where everybody else was. That started becoming a normal routine for me and I used that all the way through college. I think I’m a better player today because of the whole walk-on experience. We would finish practice and the walk-ons would have to get a to-go box in the cafeteria. We weren’t even allowed to sit down and eat with the team. It was some weird NCAA regulation. It wasn’t Ole Miss’ fault. It was an extra motivation — “I’m here to prove everybody wrong.” No one expects anything from walk-ons. It was fun to start turning some heads and start seeing, “Oh, wow, this guy’s a walk-on?”
And last offseason, from afar, it seemed like you had reasons to feel doubted and reasons to get pissed off. The GM said at a press conference…
Knox: …Yeah, he said “We don’t have a tight end that defenses fear.” Something like that. That re-lit that competitive spirit. I came into the league and it wasn’t easy but I didn’t have to work as hard as I had in the past. It re-lit that fire of, OK, I really need to go back to that dog mentality of, “I’m going to outwork everybody. I’m going to prove everybody wrong.” I needed that. That is something that really motivated me. I’m going to do my best the rest of my career to remember that feeling. That motivation, that competitiveness is what I think will drive people to be the best player they can possibly be.
Were you pissed off when you heard that?
Knox: Oh yeah. Being pissed about it is the greatest motivation you can have. That anger of people saying things. I never read the media. I don’t look at all the tweets or comments because that’s all poisonous to begin with, whether it’s good or bad. You can’t really read into the media. But when your own GM says something like, “Oh, we need to find a tight end that’ll be a weapon who defenses fear,” I was like, “Alright! It’s time to go.” That was huge for me. I’m glad he said that.
And I felt like all offseason long, the Bills were on Tinder trying to swipe right on Zach Ertz.
Knox: And you can’t control anything like that. Part of me wanted them to bring him in. I knew that’d elevate my play, too. I was excited to compete with him. I thought it was going to happen the way everyone was talking about it. But then going into camp we had our meetings with the whole front office and the coaches and they were like, “You’re our guy. We’re ready to see what you got. We have all the faith in the world in you.” So, I was like “Alright. I guess they’re not bringing him in. Time to get to work.” But part of me wanted them to bring him in so I could say I beat out Zach Ertz for the starting job.
Back in college, coming in behind an All-American, I knew that it’d take some serious, serious work to get to his level. Then, when (Engram) left, they brought in three tight ends to the same recruiting class. I was going into my redshirt sophomore year. So I was going into my third season and they brought in, I think, three four-stars all at tight end. So I said, “Alright. It’s time to beat all of these guys out.” It’s just that competition that’ll fuel any athlete to be the best they can be. The better the room is the better the player’s going to be.
So many of the best tight ends ever — Ozzie Newsome, Tony Gonzalez — had remarkable hands, but they are all quick to say that it’s not necessarily the hands. It’s the eyes. That seems to be something that hit you last offseason. We’re all enamored by the hands but it’s about looking the ball in. Eye discipline. What did you learn down those lines when you hooked up with the eye specialist?
Knox: That was definitely an area I wanted to improve because I was making the hard catches. But when it came to the easy catches, I would start looking upfield to make a guy miss and drop the easy ones. That was something I had to reevaluate because you could see clips of the ball not even secured yet and I’m looking upfield to go find a safety to run over. And I made most of the tough catches because I was so focused on trying to catch it. The guy’s name was Ryan Harrison. I’ll probably go out there another week this year to get everything back on track. His company is called “Neurodynamic Vision.” It was awesome. You don’t really think of your eyes as muscles, but it’s really something you can train. There was a screen where you’d touch things and different objects he’d throw that you have to catch. You’d have to look at a certain color with a number on there. It was stuff I had never seen before. And it was weird. After the session was over, you’d feel actually fatigued because the muscles in your eyes were working so hard. It was a weird feeling because you never really notice how tired your eyes can get. It was tracking slow-moving things to fast-moving objects to two objects at once. All these little things that, when I first started with him, were super tough. And then after the five weeks were over, some of the drills we were doing became second-nature. It was easy. It was fun to see that progress come so quick. He also sent me home with a few things to do on my own that I was doing most of the season. I got this thing called Robo-Pong. It’s basically a Jugs machine with ping-pong balls. They shoot at you with different spin on them so you really have to work on catching.
They really come out in different ways? With backspin? A knuckleball?
Knox: Yeah, you can hit something on the remote and it’ll come out with side spin, top spin, float up. You might think catching ping-pong balls is easy but those things, you’ve really got to concentrate to catch it. That was huge for me.
And what did you need to hit on a touch screen?
Knox: There could be four or five different balls moving around with different numbers. It would start with like three of the six balls highlighted and then they’d all turn the same color and move around and you’d have to pick which ones were highlighted. So it was using your peripheral vision, too, to track multiple things at once. And there was this huge touch screen with little things that would pop up and you had to hit them in time. These things would turn green slowly to red, and once it got to red the game would be over. It was working on all these different hand-eye deals.
When were you there last offseason?
Knox: The middle of March through the middle of April.
So, you saw it apply to football once you got back to the field? You’re literally seeing a different game?
Knox: Absolutely. You could feel the game slow down, too. That was another big thing, being my third year in the same system. Knowing where to line up as soon as the play was called. From there, being able to go to the second progression of reading the defense. My rookie year and even my second year, I was so focused on getting in the right spot and running the right route. I wasn’t really seeing what the defense was doing. To have that slow down for me was huge. And having the confidence of Josh. Every time he threw to me, I knew I was going to catch it. That’s something people don’t talk about a lot. It really is a confidence thing. If you tell yourself you’re going to do it, you’re probably going to do it. If you’re thinking, “Oh, gosh, don’t mess up,” that’s the first thing on your mind. Actually messing up. It’s a mental switch.
The year before, were you in that place of “Don’t screw up?”
Knox: For sure. Especially my rookie year. At Ole Miss, we probably had 20 total plays in the playbook. It was all fast-paced. Get the signal and go. So, it was pretty easy. But then it was like going from kindergarten math to college calculus. It was such a tough switch. I studied more that summer trying to learn the playbook than I did for most of my college classes. It was tough. … We have like 10 different cadences. That alone is tough. I was really thinking, “Make sure you’re in the right spot. Don’t mess up the route. I was thinking about doing my job instead of going out there and being the player I know I can be. Being the difference-maker when it comes to making plays and being athletic instead of going out there and being a robot.
The KC game early on in 2021 seemed like a breakthrough moment where your confidence exploded.
Knox: Yeah, I’d say the biggest moment was, I think it was the (Washington) game. A third and long in the red zone. Josh threw me a back-shoulder on a fade. I was able to go up and catch it for a touchdown. That was the first play this year where I was like, “I’m starting to see the results I wanted to get. I’m making the plays I know I can make.” That’s what was frustrating for me. I’ve always known what I can do as a tight end. I just wasn’t getting the results I wanted. So, that back-shoulder fade was the first one where, “OK, it’s time to keep making these plays and keep showing everybody that this is what I can do on a weekly basis.”
What’s the next step?
Knox: I think it’s having the same mindset I did last offseason. I don’t think it’s anything in-particular where I need to see this specialist or spend “X” amount of days with Josh. It’s just a mindset — “Don’t lose the hunger streak I had last year.” So, it’s really keeping that same mind space that I still need to prove people wrong. I’m still not where I want to be as a player. Because I do know that I want to be in the conversation with the elite of the elite at the position. And that’s something I plan on doing going into next season, too.
Is that realistic? Are we talking Kittle, Kelce, Knox? That stratosphere?
Knox: I don’t think anybody at this level would say they don’t want to be elite. I want to be in that conversation with those top three or four guys. I think that’s tangible for me, and that’s a goal I have going into this season.
Your catch rate was 69 percent and you only had 71 targets.
The team is going to change. It’ll be harder to keep the group together. As things change, your role could elevate.
Knox: You have to be unselfish to be a tight end. Selfishly, I want 10 catches a game. I want Josh to target me every other route. But that’s not realistic. All the contract stuff is out of my reach, something I can’t control. I can’t be thinking, “Maybe, we’ll lose this receiver. Maybe we lose key parts to the offense that elevate my role.” I’m going to do whatever I’m called upon to do. I want to be a dynamic weapon that can be a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. I want to be able to line up anywhere and do anything to keep the defense guessing.
What is it that separates you from other great tight ends in the league? If you could point to one thing?
Knox: I feel like I can get the job done with blocking but I also feel like I can run with anybody. My speed is what can separate me a little bit. Whether I’m running a go ball against a corner or running across the field with a safety trailing me, I feel like I can create separation against anybody.
What else should people know about you?
Knox: I told you about basically never playing in high school with a couple injuries. I was a starter for two quarters. I was undersized my whole first three years. A back-up, getting trash minutes. My senior year, I finally became a starter and dislocated my ankle in the very first game. So I had very, very limited experience. I wish that could’ve been different because high school football is so fun with your buddies and Friday night lights, but at the same time, that’s probably what got me to where I am today. It made me become a walk-on. It made me transition to tight end. Who knows? If I would’ve played well that year, maybe I would’ve gotten a small scholarship to play quarterback and maybe that would’ve never worked out. It’s all part of God’s plan. I’m weirdly thankful for a dislocated ankle.
Going into my junior year, I was listed on the roster as 5-11, 160. Maybe even smaller than that. I was playing second-string quarterback and never really developed. I got some trash minutes at the ends of games. Finally, I grew a little bit into my senior year and was like 6-3, 6-4, 210 pounds ready to compete. I was ready to go and it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.
How did you even get a chance to walk-on anywhere? What did they even see in you?
Knox: What’s funny is Ole Miss had one of their directors of recruiting at that first game my senior year, recruiting a different guy. Recruiting a tackle for the team we were playing. The morning of my surgery, I got a call from Coach (Hugh) Freeze. I’m like, “Why is Coach Freeze calling me right now?” He said, “Hey, man, I heard your story. I’m devastated for you.” He told me he had a similar injury in high school. He said, “We want to offer you a walk-on spot if you want it and have you come visit Oxford.” I was like, “Alright, I’ve never thought about being a walk-on but I guess it’s good to have options.” When I visited Ole Miss, I fell in love with it. It’s crazy how things can happen like that.
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