The 2016 NFL draft is filled with potential impact playmakers at every position. Franchises looking for a difference-maker on offense will search high and low for the right value and fit. Former Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon has separated himself from the pack as one of the top playmakers in the class.
The 5’10”, 213-pound back from Strong, Arkansas, had one of the most decorated careers in NCAA history. A three-time All-Conference USA star, Dixon finished his tenure with 5,452 total yards from scrimmage and 87 touchdowns. He broke the all-time touchdowns scored record and held the record briefly before Navy’s Keenan Reynolds eclipsed his mark shortly after.
Dixon was a 3-star recruit, per 247Sports, who quickly proved he should’ve been ranked higher than the 51st overall running back in the class. He dominated the WAC in his freshman season with 1,194 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns. His NFL potential transcends the statistics as we turn on the tape to see how Dixon created such impressive feats.
As collegiate teams continue to feature spread concepts to maximize space for their athletes, a handful of running backs have taken full advantage and produced eye-popping numbers. The transition to the NFL is much more difficult for those lacking the special physical traits to capitalize on smaller opportunities at the next level.
Dixon isn’t the prototypical spread running back despite his size fitting the bill of past entries who struggled in the NFL. He runs hard and hungry whether his team is up several scores or trailing with no chance of coming back. He’s a nuisance for defenses because he’s so explosive in small spaces that tacklers can’t casually approach him.
Dixon’s not the powerful freight train that Alabama’s Derrick Henry is, nor is he as well-rounded as Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. But he has a unique game that is reminiscent of a young Knowshon Moreno or LeSean McCoy.
A running back’s elusiveness can be subtle yet still effective. Evading big hits allows for yards after contact if the back combines lateral agility with balance. According to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, Dixon averaged 3.3 yards after first contact, which almost doubled the amount of yards he gained before first contact (1.7).
What stands out most about Dixon’s skill set is his elite ability to make defenders miss. He is tremendously quick with his lower body. Taking the wrong angle against Dixon can lead to a trail of missed tackles as he works his way downfield.
The jump cut is a move Dixon loves to use and will continue to be a dangerous weapon in his arsenal moving forward. He is effortless in using it because he’s so twitchy and light on his feet despite weighing 213 pounds. Creating advantageous angles forces missed tackles and extra yardage more so than pure power. The best ball-carriers will also extend their career by avoiding big hits.
Zone-running teams should fall head over heels for Dixon’s footwork. His ability to cut on a dime not only allows him to force missed tackles, but he also takes advantage of late-opening rush lanes. His improvisational skills past the first level of the defense can be the difference between a five-yard run and a game-changing play.
Setting up defenders yards before contact is even possible is a nuance that few NFL backs consistently do. Dixon has purpose and strategy far before it’s time to execute, and he refined this talent throughout his time at Louisiana Tech. This is what separates Dixon from past spread backs like Lache Seastrunk and Noel Devine.
His controlled nature in a created chaotic environment will be an issue for opponents at the next level. Even as the hash marks shrink and the quality of defenders drastically increases, Dixon was overwhelmingly the best athlete and player in most, if not all, of his collegiate games. He had the look of a stud NFL back even in his first collegiate season.
Dixon isn’t just a horizontal, finesse runner despite his dazzling style. He transfers his quickness into surprising power to extend plays. His height becomes a positive as well because he keeps his pads low and can dip through tacklers without losing significant momentum. His ability to maximize his physical traits each play shows an understanding of himself.
Plays like this help show how Dixon is a dangerous playmaker at running back. The outside zone play presents Dixon with the ability to cut upfield, inside or bounce the run outside. Defenders crash down off the tackle, and he correctly reads the lane.
Dixon doesn’t just eliminate the outside defenders, though. He double cuts as he crosses the line of scrimmage to take away any pursuit angle the inside defender had. This small move also buys his blockers an extra split second to establish their positioning.
A wide receiver lost his block to a secondary member, leaving Dixon to deal with the defender. He utilizes a spin move as contact is made and slips through to gain the first down. He not only avoided the direct impact, but delivered an extra two yards because of his effort.
Although Dixon is not an especially good pass-blocker right now, he has value on third downs. He is a quality receiver out of the backfield with the ability to run the most difficult routes an NFL offense will ask of him. He finished his career with 87 receptions for 969 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air.
His playmaking ability showed as a receiver in addition to a ball-carrier. His jaw-dropping touchdown reception against Arkansas State showed tremendous footwork and body control despite two defenders in the immediate area. He may not be a featured part of a passing game, but he shouldn’t leave the field, as he can move to the slot to create a mismatch.
Dixon’s illustrious collegiate career doesn’t guarantee NFL success. His playmaking ability will translate because of the unique and exquisite traits he utilizes. He’s benefited from his four years of experience, as he’s mastered control of his body and refined his reactions to specific circumstances.
At just 22 years old, Dixon has considerable NFL talent and ceiling. While he has room to improve his patience as a runner and tended to go for the big play too often at times, he can absolutely start in a zone-running scheme. His value should lie in the second or third round for teams needing an impact back.
Teams like the Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys would be excellent schematic fits. Don’t be surprised if he ends up asserting himself as one of the top young running backs in the league as soon as his rookie season.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.