Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox is on the verge of breaking out on the best team in football.
Dawson Knox is at home, and 162 ping-pong balls are flying at him.
For the past two offseasons, the Buffalo Bills tight end has worked with Ryan Harrison, a sports vision performance consultant of 23 years with SlowTheGameDown. Based out of Irvine, Calif., Harrison’s team hosted Knox on a daily basis in 2021 for six weeks before giving him tools through an app to continue working on eye-hand coordination with their mobile program.
Harrison’s team uses a variety of teaching methods, including eye charts and the use of a depth perception tracking trainer to evaluate professional athletes of all sports. The basis is evaluating how the 14 muscles supporting both eyes are functioning. The goal is to train those muscles to become efficient with a yogi-like regimen. To track a football, receivers must have good dynamic depth perception.
“Nobody really talks about it because it’s an under-studied thing,” said Knox of eye training in an exclusive interview with FanSided. “What was crazy was when I first started working with (Harrison), by the end of the workout I felt like I needed to take a nap because my eye muscles were so tired. People don’t really realize that your eyes are moved by muscles and the more you work them, the stronger they get. At the same time, they can get fatigued, they can get tired. It was cool seeing how I felt after the first few sessions compared to how I feel now after doing some of the stuff, and kind of advancing with that. More than anything, it’s the confidence of knowing I can do it and then just being disciplined, looking it all the way in.”
In Knox’s case, he was previously monocular, which means one eye was being used more than the other by his brain. Therefore, the idea of Knox’s training is getting into what’s known as the zone state, or focusing by using both eyes.
Knox’s program is highlighted by what Harrison calls eye-mind-body coordination. Enter the machine which shoots 162 ping-ping balls per minute at him to catch, creating a better decision-making process.
“We do it from different positions from where he’s laying down, he’s turned, he’s twisted,” Harrison said. “He’s trying to get his eyes in any position that might happen on the field and he’ll have to track from different trajectories.”
The results have been undeniable. In his first two seasons, Knox dropped 14 passes. Last year, he dropped only four after working with Harrison’s training, enjoying a breakout campaign in which he caught 49 passes and 69 percent of his targets, for 587 yards and nine touchdowns. This compared to the previous two combined seasons which saw Knox total 52 receptions and haul in 55.3 percent of total targets, for 676 yards and five scores.
“If you see the ball that much longer, you have more time to make better decisions,” Harrison said.
To understand Knox’s mindset is to understand his background. This is a person who struggled to maintain childhood friendships because of his competitiveness. He cried when he lost games of darts against his dad. A delay to his bedtime was often determined by whether he could answer Star Wars trivia correctly, a series that keeps his mind occupied on flights and inspired his Halloween costumes and the naming of his dog, Ben, after Obi-Wan Kenobi.
In high school, Knox was a 5-foot-9 backup quarterback who missed his senior season with a dislocated ankle. With no tape, Knox earned walk-on status at Ole Miss, where he worked in darkness for two years, before finally earning offensive snaps in his third year on campus. Even then, on an offense with receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, targets were limited.
Knox caught a total of 39 collegiate passes with zero touchdowns.
Yet Knox excited NFL scouts during his draft process by his transformation, running a 4.51 40-time at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds.
“It was hard,” chuckled Knox when thinking about turning from quarterback to tight end. “The catching and running routes came pretty quick just because in high school I played a little bit of receiver … but the blocking was what was super-tough. Coming in day one and trying to block guys like Robert Nkemdiche, it was a huge learning curve. That took a couple years just getting down the right footwork and leverage. Just building that strength too, going from 210 pounds to 250-255 pounds. The weight room was huge for me.”
Ultimately, Bills general manager Brandon Beane believed in Knox. Buffalo selected him 96th overall with a third-round compensatory pick.
Knox was thrilled, even if his geography was a bit awry.
“When I got drafted by Buffalo I was like ‘that’s cool, at least we’ll be close to New York City.’ I had no idea where it was.”
In his constant effort to improve, Knox has hopes beyond the typical training regimen, which he conducts just outside of Nashville alongside fellow tight ends including the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and Robert Tonyan of the Green Bay Packers.
Still, considerable work has to be done, even if considerable work has already been put in.
“I’m just trying to treat it the same way I treated it last year,” Knox said. “Last year I had a chip on my shoulder still, having not really proved yet what I could do on the field. I still have that same feeling, as though I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m just getting started in this league. I still only had 49 catches last year. I know I was playing almost every snap but I want to keep developing into a premier talent.”
And if there’s a time to become one, this is it. Knox is entering the final season of his rookie deal, one that pays him $3.5 million across four years. In 2021, Knox ranked T-20th in receptions (49), 15th in yards (587) and T-1st in touchdowns (9) for tight ends.
If the first two figures improve by 20 percent and Knox posts stats of 60 catches for 700 yards, he would be approaching the same category of Mike Gesicki of the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys’ Dalton Schultz, both of who were tagged this offseason at $10.9 million.
However, there’s also the comparable of Jonnu Smith (New England Patriots) and David Njoku (Cleveland Browns), who have never enjoyed a season equal to Knox’s 2021 campaign and still got paid handsomely over the past 18 months. Smith signed a four-year, $50 million deal with $31 million guaranteed last offseason, while Njoku inked a four-year, $56 million pact with $28 million guaranteed in May.
Should Knox continue elevating his game, he stands to make top-end money for tight ends, either by way of tag or long-term deal. This isn’t news to Knox, who noted his belief the position is undervalued across the league, pointing to Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce leading the NFL in receiving yards across the past five seasons, only to be paid half of what top receivers make.
Looking towards the biggest year of his young career, Knox believes his game is coming together after almost a decade of dealing with content change.
“I’m finally getting comfortable with everything they ask me to do, whether that’s running deeper routes like a receiver would or bringing me in and having me block defensive ends,” Knox said. “I feel like I’m having the game finally slow down a little bit for me after having my head spin learning the offense, the position, the league. I feel like last year was a great year to have under my belt to prove to everyone and myself that I can do it at an elite level. Just to have something like that to keep building on.
“I view myself as being up there with the best of the best. I know my statistics when the ball is actually thrown to me are as good if not better than everybody. I know my run blocking has gotten considerably better too, but at the same time I don’t ever want to get complacent with that. Just continue to build on that, continue to earn the trust of (Bills quarterback Josh Allen) and the guys calling the plays to where in critical downs I’ll get the ball thrown to me.”
While Knox’s ascension has been spearheaded by continued off-field work, it’s also been helped by on-field chemistry with Allen.
Allen has become one of Knox’s best friends, with the two sharing a passion for hockey, golf and video games. They also share a passion for football, one that has created a bond between the white lines. Yet that relationship took time, partially because catching a pass from Allen is an adjustment for anybody, let alone someone who wasn’t a full-time pass-catcher until his redshirt sophomore year at Ole Miss.
“I always say they have him as a 99 throw power on Madden, but he needs to be bumped up to 100,” Knox said. “His arm talent is unlike I’ve ever experienced in my life. You can be standing 50 yards down the field and he’ll throw it on a rope to where the ball doesn’t come above your head the whole flight path. I don’t know how he does it. …I think it took a full year to get used to his arm strength, getting used to running routes and getting the ball thrown to me a good bit.
“It’s to the point now where I’m begging him to throw it to me more. I think the more plays I can make for him and our team, the more he’ll start throwing to me and the better we’ll be as a team.”
For NFL fans outside western New York, the thought of Buffalo being better is a scary one.
Two years ago, the Bills were 13-3 and reached the AFC Championship Game, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2021, they met with the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium once more.
With 13 seconds remaining in their AFC Divisional clash, Buffalo scored to take a 36-33 lead. Incredibly, Patrick Mahomes threw twice for 45 yards, Harrison Butker kicked a game-tying 48-yard field goal, the Chiefs won the ensuing coin toss and never gave the ball back in a 42-36 overtime win.
For Knox, it was a teaching moment. It also serves as motivation.
“I think that feeling of having won the game — you never want to celebrate a win too early but we were hugging each other on the sidelines — it was all but won for us,” Knox said. “So to have that rug swept from under our feet is a feeling I’ll never forget and I think it’s the same for all my teammates as well. I think that’s going to be a crucial motivator for us going forward because you learn more from a loss than you do from a win. That’ll be a great little chip on our shoulder going into this next season.”
Now, Buffalo enters the season as Super Bowl favorites across Vegas Sportsbooks. Knox knows this, but while he appreciates the respect, sees it as a potential distraction.
Knox also realizes the Bills need to be focused with a tough starting stretch to the season which features four teams which reached the Divisional round last year, along with a playoff team in the Pittsburgh Steelers, a high-end contender in the Baltimore Ravens and a much-improved Miami Dolphins squad. He’s not concerned.
“I’ve always thought, well, they have to play us,” Knox said. “It’s them that has to worry about coming to play us or them that has to worry about hosting us in their stadium. I don’t think we’re all looking at one particular game or one particular opponent as much as realizing what we have and trying to work on that as much as we possibly can to where people are concerned when they see us on the schedule.”
For Knox, a critical season for both he and his team await. Come autumn, he’ll be trying to catch every ball thrown his way to raise his value and the Bills’ chances of a first Super Bowl victory.
Right now, he’s trying to catch 162 of them, making his ultimate task seem simple by comparison.