Antonio Dixon---a breakout year in 2011?

Antonio Dixon---a breakout year in 2011?

Eagles

Antonio Dixon---a breakout year in 2011?

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Everything in my gut tells me, after the way the 2011 Draft played out, the Eagles are banking heavily on Antonio Dixon to have a breakout year at defensive tackle in the coming season…

At 6-3, 328, and only 25 years old, Antonio Dixon (#90) is the slimmed-down version of Terrence (“Mount”) Cody…a little faster…and on a mission from God to take everything the sport has to offer to better himself and his family…

Antonio Dixon doesn’t get a lot of press….partly because he wants it that way.

He played college football at the University of Miami. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Redskins in 2009. Dixon was claimed off waivers by the Eagles on September 6, 2009.

Now I feel comes the big payoff for both the Eagles and Dixon… I believe we are about to witness the breakout year of a superstar DT…

Why, you may ask, does Antonio Dixon need me to tell you how good he is at what he does—and will become even moreso in 2011?

It’s because Antonio doesn’t talk much about himself—at least not to the press. And there’s a reason for that, too.

Dixon is overcoming a speech impediment and also dealing with dyslexia… And Michael Oher ain’t got nothing on the Hollywood script possibilities of Antonio Dixon’s life story.

Antonio Dixon’s first paycheck from the Eagles hangs proudly framed on his apartment wall. It is symbolic of a promise kept—and poverty broken…and a reminder that nothing in life is guaranteed.

Maybe Pro Football Focus said it best: “It is testament to the belief Eagles’ coaches have had in Dixon that he has became the premier player in a defensive tackle group that boasts three players drafted in rounds one and two (Bunkley, Mike Patterson and Trevor Laws.) It’s also easy to see why Antonio Dixon is the Eagles’ Secret Superstar.”

Dixon flashed during his rookie year. As a run defender in 2009, he accumulated a +3.9 grade in 119 snaps. He wasn’t making a lot of plays, with just ten stops, but he’d more than shown he deserved a roster spot … Then, with an expanded role in 2010— a torn bicep for incumbent Brodrick Bunkley against San Francisco gave Dixon a chance to start in Week 6 —he did not disappoint. He ended the year ranked 8th overall in run defense grades for interior defensive linemen, surrounded by players like Antonio Garay, Haloti Ngata and Kevin Williams. His playmaking was once again lacking (just 21 stops), but this is understandable considering the 2-gap scheme that asks Eagle defensive tackles to eat up blocks.

Dixon put in one of the most memorable run-defending performances we saw all year in 2010 against Chicago. His day was highlighted by three tackles for a loss, and he gave Olin Kreutz fits throughout the game. The TennesseeTitans’ interior can’t have been happy to see him either in Week 7 as neither Eugene Amano nor Leroy Harris had an answer.

While against the run he was sometimes supreme, he has failed so far to match that level when rushing the passer. In 229 pass rushes in 2010, he put up just seven quarterback disruptions, two of which were sacks… This was less production than his rookie year, where he had six combined pressures in just 120 snaps. Considering he only plays in the base package (the Eagles use their defensive ends inside when in the nickel,) his opportunities have thus far been limited…
 
It will be interesting to see the effect of the new system on Dixon’s performance under recently hired defensive line coach Jim Washburn. The shift will be towards a more disruptive and aggressive 1-gap scheme in contrast to the gap-control scheme of previous years. Washburn also used his defensive tackles in the nickel during his time in Tennessee, so Dixon may find himself with more of a disruptive opportunity in the coming year.

Every season, USA Today releases its team of unsung NFL players called the “All Joe” team. Two Eagles made the team of “Joes”in 2010… LeSean McCoy, and Antonio Dixon.

Dixon’s come a long way since shuttling between homeless shelters as a kid. After being thrust into the lineup in Week 5 last season, Philadelphia gave up nearly 50 fewer rushing yards per game once he became a starter…Hard to believe the Redskins cut Dixon because they clearly didn’t see enough in him…he was one of the very bright spots on the Eagles defense this past season.

Maybe just making it to the NFL would be a movie in itself… Dixon grew up in at least six homeless shelters in Miami and Atlanta. He stuttered, had dyslexia, and could not read until the sixth grade. His mother, Corenthia Dixon, was a single parent raising five children, including Dixon. His father, Frazier Hawkins, served 17 years in prison for drug trafficking charges. Dixon and his siblings lived in foster care for a year.

Dixon attended Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida. He started playing football in the ninth grade, and he played as an offensive and defensive lineman. He graded out at better than 90 percent in his blocking assignments as a senior. On defense, Dixon had 62 tackles and 10.5 sacks in his senior year, with 8.0 sacks during his junior year. He was ranked the 19th player in Florida by Rivals.com and was the 7th prep school prospect. By the time he finished high school, he weighed over 350 pounds.

In his only year at Milford Academy in New Berlin, New York, in 2004, Dixon finished with 77 tackles, including 21 tackles for loss, which was a team-high. He also had 11.5 sacks, which was tied for first on the team, as Milford finished 11-1 that season. He had to take a Greyhound bus back and forth from New York to Miami because he could not afford plane tickets.

Dixon chose to sign with the University of Miami to play college football. In his career at Miami, Dixon made 71 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. He also played in 40 games, ten of which he started. Perhaps even more significantly, Dixon received the Wilma Rudolph Student Athlete Achievement Award in 2009. The award is given to college athletes who have overcome great personal, academic and emotional odds to achieve academic success. Dixon graduated with a degree in liberal arts in May 2009, and became the first person in his family to graduate college.

This was all part of the plan that had been in the works for years. Dixon’s mother paints the picture of little Antonio at the homeless shelter, steadfast in his conviction that he was the “man” that would get them out of dire straits…

“He would say, ‘Momma, I’m going to get us out of this situation. I’m going to play football and we’ll be rich one day.’ I used to laugh and say, ‘That’s so sweet…’ ” 

Not that she dismissed what her son was saying, but playing in the NFL and being rich hardly seems within reach when you are homeless.

All the while, Antonio was at work on his plan. There was much work to do, as the boy was born not just impoverished but also impaired. To this day, when he is the least bit excited or nervous, his mind will get stuck, and he’s forced to slap his arm or pound his chest to get the word out. He was often teased for how he spoke, and would get in the occasional fight as a result.

He kept his focus, though. Even though he went to about ten different middle schools between all the moving around, and was battling a learning disability along the way, the mission to make the NFL and get rich never went off track.

Antonio’s schedule went: School, then home. Once football was introduced, it went: school, then football, then home. He never went out with his friends, instead coming home to crack open books and will himself to read and learn.

Things stabilized in high school thanks in large part to football, as he spent all four years at Booker T. Washington in Miami. After that successful year at the preparatory school Milford Academy, he was heavily recruited, and ultimately chose the University of Miami. After the Redskins signed him and waived him, and then on September 6, 2009, the Eagles claimed him, his mother recalls: “He called and said, ‘Momma, I got signed by the Eagles!’ …Everyone in the house started screaming: ‘He did it, he did it! He said he was going to do it, and he did it!’ “

“Dixon is a bright spot on this team… He’s played very well so he’ll continue to have opportunities,” said Andy Reid, who was asked to comment on the personal accomplishments of his newfound defensive tackle. “I mean, Antonio’s had to overcome some things just in his life. He has a speech impediment, and so on, and he’s worked through that, and he’s one of the team favorites, just as far as being a person. He’s playing very good football right now and he works at it… he really worked in the offseason about keeping his weight down and kind of reforming his body and it’s paying off for him. He’s playing very good football [and he’s a] very, very strong player and really enjoys playing the game, so I’m happy for him. He’s doing well.”

Thanks to Antonio and his Eagles paycheck, his mother and family are now in a three-bedroom house in the Miami area, complete with a big back yard. They are renting for now. “I’m real happy now,” said Antonio. “Mom’s secure, and the family has a place to lay their heads and a place to call home. We’re happy about that.”

Antonio, meanwhile, is staying in a one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia, with plans to upgrade mildly. His mom has continued to preach cautious spending, as the next hard moment might be right around the corner. “I’m not getting a house until I sign another contract… I’m still grinding,” he said. “I’m still trying to make it. I haven’t made it yet. I can get hurt tomorrow and never play again, so I’m trying to be smart about it.”

Dixon’s size leads many to believe he’s a prototypical 4-3 two gap player, but he’s surprisingly agile for a man that goes about 330 lbs. While he hasn’t yet produced big-time while rushing the passer, he has shown some explosion and block-shedding ability many times against the run. If anything, the new Washburn/Castillo plan may fit Dixon better than the last.
 
As GK Brizer so often has reminded us, talented players usually find ways to thrive in different schemes. Dixon is certainly talented. However, a quick glance through his scouting grades shows he still has a lot of work to do. Against weak competition, he was simply dominant, but when he came up against good run-blocking teams like Houston (LG Wade Smith and C Chris Myers,) he struggled a bit. It’s his performances against top opponents that will dictate whether Dixon can take the next step to become a breakout performer…
 
Dixon is much more than a feel-good story. He’s got the skills to produce in the NFL and we’ve only had a glimpse of what he’s capable of.

(Thanks to Tim McManus of Philadelphia Sports Daily and John Breitenbach of Pro Football Focus for their help in researching the continuing saga of Antonio Dixon’s life and NFL career…)

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