After a heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in the 2014-2015 Divisional Round, the 2016 season was even more of a year to forget for the Baltimore Ravens. But with Joe Flacco set to return and a new rookie class hoping to contribute, perhaps the Ravens can right the ship. Matthew Brown looks at a rookie RB that could play a big role, Kenneth Dixon.
The Baltimore Ravens entered the draft with a need at running back since the aging and oft-injured Justin Forsett, change-of-pace Javorius Allen, and overweight Trent Richardson are simply not good enough options for the NFL. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Terrance West appear to be merely camp bodies. Rather than take a day-three running back, or try the undrafted free agent route, General Manager Ozzie Newsome selected Kenneth Dixon in the fourth round – a draft pick that should seriously improve Baltimore’s offense.
Why Dixon is a Great Pick
While there are numerous dangers present when evaluating a player on college production alone, a player’s output should always be considered when studying a prospect. Playing for a small school, Dixon was crucial to Louisiana Tech’s offense, breaking the NCAA touchdown record with 87 (a mark since eclipsed by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds’s 88). He finished the 2015 season with 1,072 rushing yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and 19 touchdowns.
When watching Dixon, the first trait that makes itself known is his excellent elusiveness. He often escapes the first tackler as he is supremely talented at jukes, cuts, and spin moves:
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When not dancing past and around defenders, Dixon showcases lightning-quick feet, changing direction at top-speed impressively:
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Pro Football Focus ranked him first in their “elusive rating” out of all draft-eligible running backs and this evasiveness saw him tried as a returner at the Senior Bowl. His ability to make plays allowed him to create 4.14 yards per attempt.
Finished up Kenneth Dixon's Yards Created sample. 51.1% of Dixon's missed tackles forced were via elusiveness: pic.twitter.com/EURPc8WI9s
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) April 21, 2016
He doesn’t just run with shiftiness: Dixon finishes his runs with aggression, and – despite his 5’10”, 215 pound body limiting his ability to run through tacklers – he is a punishing runner. He lays hits at the ends of his runs and can run over cornerbacks. His terrific effort and determination led to him averaging 3.3 yards after contact.
This clip exemplifies his attitude and also illustrates his surprising ability as a goalline/redzone back, as he powers through defenders into the end zone:
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Here he demonstrates physicality while running inside:
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Elusiveness and aggressiveness are not the only traits that allow Dixon to be such an effective runner. His body positioning, running stance, and pad level are brilliant, ensuring that he rarely loses his balance and nearly always falls forward. All of these factors combined led to Dixon forcing 66 missed tackles during the 2015 CFB season.
Pass catching ability
Dixon’s hands and route running are more comparable to a wide receiver’s than those of a running back. He was a serious weapon in the aerial attack last season for the Bulldogs’ offense, catching 34 passes for 467 yards and seven touchdowns. He has the talent to adjust to the ball mid-air, in this case catching a pass which is placed behind him:
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His proficiency as a receiver is again exhibited here, as he runs the wheel route to perfection, catching the ball skillfully while getting both feet in-bounds:
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Any offense adding a player who is supremely talented at catching and playmaking out of the backfield instantly becomes more dangerous. Dixon has the awareness to realize when a play breaks down, as the first clip in this trio – which should be recalled from above – of backfield catches illustrates. All of the clips prove the softness of his hands, as does the fact that he had just two drops in 2015.
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Dixon is not just a great weapon out of the backfield, he is also effective out of the slot:
When lined up in the slot, La Tech RB Kenneth Dixon caught 12-of-15 targets for 185 yds and 2 TDs this season
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 30, 2016
Dixon’s potential to be motioned out of the backfield is a schematic nightmare for opposing teams:
Kenneth Dixon versus linebackers in 1 on 1 coverage is generally bad news for the linebacker. #seniorbowl
— Michael Tanier (@MikeTanier) January 27, 2016
In pass protection, Dixon is obviously not as polished as an NFL veteran would be. Nevertheless, he has shown promise in this area, allowing just five pressures on 142 pass-blocking snaps. He is particularly skilled at chop blocking, lowering his head and taking his man out of the play. With more coaching, and as his familiarity with NFL blitzing schemes increases, he should become an accomplished pass protector. Watch as he shepherds a blitzing linebacker away from the quarterback:
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Dixon is an intelligent running back with first-rate football instincts. He exhibits little hesitancy when hitting the hole, displaying a crucial decisiveness for success. His patience when carrying the football will benefit him greatly in the NFL, as he allows blocks to develop and, moreover, reads them well. His vision and patience is currently at an NFL-ready level.
Why he only went in the fifth round
Dixon was rated by some draftniks as the second or third-best back in the draft. The main reason for Dixon’s mini fall – other than running backs simply not being valued that highly in today’s NFL – is his underwhelming combine. More specifically, his 40-yard dash time will have put many teams off: 4.58 seconds.
In general, Dixon as an athlete is not that impressive. He lacks the top-end speed and acceleration of an upper echelon NFL running back, which saw him caught from behind in college. This is despite the fact that 49 percent of his yards came off of breakaways, placing him fifth amongst draft-eligible running backs. In the NFL, Dixon may need to rely on more of a slashing style.
(It is worth pointing out that despite lacking breakaway speed and acceleration, Dixon did rank fourth among running backs in the vertical leap with a 37.5”. This test is a good indicator of explosiveness, and confirms what the tape shows: Although he lacks breakaway speed, he exhibits explosiveness when approaching the hole.)
At 5’10”, 215 pounds he won’t be able to power through defenders as often as he did in college. Dixon’s lack of lower body strength will become more noticeable at the NFL level too, as he will likely be limited in his ability to push the pile. His size may have lead to durability concerns amongst teams, particularly as Dixon missed two games last year with an ankle injury. In addition, there may have been concern about the large amount of carries Dixon had in college (802).
Ball security is an area in which Dixon can improve, unlike his top speed or frame – which is likely maxed out. At times, when lowering his head and seeking contact, Dixon neglects to secure the football. He has a tendency to carry the ball too low, which has contributed to 14 career fumbles; carrying the ball high and tight needs to be drilled into him. With more guidance, Dixon should be able to rectify his fumbling issue.
NFL Projection and Scheme Fit
Barring a disastrous preseason, if Dixon does not begin the season as the starting running back, he will likely be the starting third-down back. Additionally, he could possibly have a role in a running-back-by-committee situation. In either of these roles, Dixon will have a chance to adjust to the NFL and is likely to win the starting job at some point.
It wold not be a shock to see Dixon become an often-used option in the passing game. He may find himself lined up in the slot because of the Ravens’ poor options; successive injuries to 2014 first-round pick Breshad Perriman has left Baltimore relying heavily on 37-year-old Steve Smith – who surely will not be able to defy age for much longer.
Dixon will have to rely more on his elusiveness and vision to gain yardage in the NFL’s world of elite athletes. Luckily, these two skills are among the strongest elements of his game. They are also crucial features for a back in the zone blocking scheme that the Ravens have implemented. Forsett revealed what a back with good vision and patience could accomplish in the Baltimore offense during his breakout season in 2014. Dixon should flourish.
His ability to evade and bounce off would-be tacklers, in addition to being an accomplished pass catcher, is an exciting prospect for Ravens fans. He has the pass catching ability of a Matt Forte, but also the mini-physicality of a Thomas Rawls. He looked like the ideal Patriots back, so the Ravens may have stolen one from right under Bill Belichick’s nose. It would not be surprising to see Dixon become a Pro-Bowl level NFL back.