The Jacksonville Jaguars have put a concerted effort into rebuilding their defense, especially on the defensive line. The team turned over a lot of players this offseason, mainly at the LEO end position. The two players at that position who returned from 2015 are Chris Smith and 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler, Jr. As we all know, Fowler missed his rookie season in the NFL after tearing his ACL in rookie mini-camp prior to the season even starting.
Fowler returned to training camp this offseason with no limitations and in fact was noticeable right out of the gate. Fowler was the talk of the first few weeks of training camp, embarrassing Luke Joeckel, Jermey Parnell and any other offensive tackle put in front of him in drills. It appeared as if the Jaguars pass rush issues might be a thing of the past because Fowler had been so dominant in training camp. A lot of fans started putting expectations on Fowler that were pretty unrealistic, but he was doing so well in training camp it was hard to argue, and really could it be any worse than it was in last season?
We're not going to rehash the lack of pass from from 2015, but headed into the 2016 season it was a big point of emphasis. The Jaguars tried to sign free agent veterans for the position in Olivier Vernon and Robert Ayers, but both decided to sign deals with other teams. They even kicked the tires on Greg Hardy. The Jaguars also picked up Malik Jackson to help with the interior rush and drafted both Yannick Ngakoue and Tyrone Holmes to help further bolster the youth and depth at the LEO end position.
But then the preseason started and Fowler didn't really do anything noticeable in the first two games against the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In fact, Fowler was frustrated in the joint practices with the Bucs because he was struggling so much that he got into a fight with a Bucs offensive lineman and was booted from practice.
It was an eye-opening moment for not only Fowler, but also for fans who were quick to put some pretty unrealistic expectations on the young pass rusher.
But... it really shouldn't have been.
Rookie pass rushers generally are not productive and while Fowler is technically not a rookie, since he was in meetings and everything last year, but he didn't play a single snap and that's what really matters. Fowler is going through what any rookie would in that you're not going against the same dudes you see every day in practice and know their intricacies and how to beat them. Now you're not only learning on the fly against an offensive lineman you've probably never played before, but since it's the preseason you've only got a handful of snaps to do it.
This is a big reason that I was so staunch about the Jaguars needing to add a veteran edge rusher to their lineup this offseason, because you can't rely on the rookies to bring what you need. Sure, if Sen'Derrick Marks returns to his play and Malik Jackson is the real deal, the interior rush will remove some pressure on the rookies at the LEO end spot, but even with one-on-one matchups, it's going to be a struggle.
Edge rusher is up there as one of the hardest transitions from college to pro, because a lot of college players just rely on speed and athleticism to beat offensive lineman, but at the NFL level that is evened out and you need to couple that with technique and film study. The technique part is something you learn over time and it's also something that really needs to be learned with actual play, to know how effective what you're doing is.
All offseason my thought was for Fowler is that if he could get five to six sacks, than it's a successful season for him and the Jaguars. Many fans thought he could push for double digit sacks, but after the first two games of the NFL preseason they've realized they might want to pull that back just a little bit.
But again, no, you shouldn't be concerned about Dante Fowler at this point. He's for all intents and purposes a rookie. He still has to learn and get adjusted to the NFL. I say this as someone who has been very critical of Fowler and the Jaguars approach to edge rusher in free agency, don't worry about it yet. This is normal.