After Benching, Ahmad Dixon Needs To Show Garrett, Cowboys He’s Progressing
Every college athlete who ever stepped onto NFL soil has faced the monumental challenge of growing up. Though acknowledged as a universal challenge for all of humanity, maturing in the arena of professional football is a process that waits on nobody. It demands compliance from the rich, the undrafted, and the entitled. From the Johnny Manziel’s in Cleveland…and the Ahmad Dixon’s down in Dallas.
Even without celebrity status to his credit like Manziel, Dixon’s battle at strong safety with the Cowboys is fraught with the same tendency to do the wrong thing at the most inopportune moment. It, too, could lead to his undoing.
A Day 3 selection by the Cowboys in May’s NFL Draft, Dixon’s chances of making the final 53-man roster are currently in a good way, though certainly not set in stone. One of the out-of-the-blue developments of this preseason, his sudden rise up the depth chart has shocked nearly everyone following the team except those who know him well.
It’s no secret to the people of Waco that Ahmad Dixon has the potential to be a starter in the National Football League. Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett knew it last year during a 2013 season in which Dixon was a Second Team All Big 12 selection. And now, halfway through the preseason schedule, one gets the feeling that Jason Garrett and Rod Marinelli do too.
Befitting his status as a seventh-round selection, Dixon’s body of work at training camp in Oxnard was unimpressive, yet he caught everyone’s eye in the Cowboys’ preseason opener in San Diego when he tallied a team-high 12 tackles. It didn’t hurt either that his performance came during a game in which Marinelli bemoaned a pervasive lack of effort among Cowboy defenders. Dixon’s stock was soaring. He was the talk of camp, and even earned some practice time with the first-team defense.
And then the news came that he had suffered a concussion during the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 27-7 loss to the Chargers, leading to his absence from practice over the next several days. When he finally passed all of the concussion tests from team doctors, only then was Dixon able to rejoin his teammates.
But when Dixon arrived late to the team’s final walk-through session of camp, head coach Jason Garrett waved him away and dismissed him from the field. Dixon was informed shortly after that he would not suit up for the following day’s game against Baltimore in Arlington.
Dixon didn’t even get a chance to give an explanation for his tardiness. To Garrett, the reason didn’t matter.
Just how driven Dixon is to play football at a high level has been a question mark surrounding him since he declared for the draft. Nolan Nawrocki had this to say about Dixon in his pre-draft coverage for NFL.com: “Box safety possessing the physical talent to compete in the NFL and even earn a starting job eventually if he can stay focused…” By sitting him down for a game, Garrett was trying to light a fire under the rookie by reminding him that there is no room for such error for a player in his position.
Even though he didn’t draft Dixon with the notion of throwing him into a starting role immediately, Garrett understands the Cowboys’ recent injury history well enough to know that seeing Dixon earn a spot start or two in 2014 wasn’t out of the question. But Garrett isn’t going to put an irresponsible player in the defensive backfield on Sunday afternoons, nor take up a roster spot with one. Especially a player with as many flaws as Dixon.
Dixon thrived on a Baylor defense that simplified his duties by blitzing early and often. When not highlighting Dixon’s tackling abilities around the line of scrimmage, a heavy pass-rush often covered up his weaknesses in pass defense, making his coverage responsibilities both simpler and shorter.
With talent on the defensive side of the ball a rare commodity in Dallas these days, Dixon will be afforded no such luxury in 2014. In Marinelli’s defense, the safeties are asked to do more than just tackle. The Cowboys will need Dixon to play an abundance of center field, read offensive formations before the snap, and adjust during the play’s progression. Marinelli could try to hide him in basic shell coverage against certain quarterbacks, but won’t be able to do that all the time.
Just like they were from day one, the odds of Dixon being an opening day starter on Sep. 7 are small. Dixon’s 6-0 212-pound frame, coupled with his willingness to step down in the box and support the run, make him a natural at the strong safety position, a position which veteran Barry Church appears to have locked down. His best bet is to earn a roster spot on the kick-coverage units, a role he played especially well at Baylor.
Either way, whether he’s a full-timer or simply part of the special teams, Dixon needs to stay out of the cross-hairs of the Cowboys coaches. He needs to buckle down, show up on time and strive to do the little things right. But above all, he needs to prove that he’s growing up.