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Dante Fowler Jr. should move to strong-side linebacker

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His future isn’t promising at defensive end, but I haven’t given up hope for Dante Fowler Jr. completely.

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Dante Fowler Jr. just ain’t cutting it at defensive end.

The former third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft hasn’t lived up to any of the expectations that were set for him as the Jaguars primary pass rushing defensive end. Based on his film from his 2016 season, there isn’t much of anything you can hang your hat on for him to progress on heading into 2017 at the defensive end position, either.

I’ve called Fowler Jr. a bust as a defensive end before, to many of fans’ displeasure. No one wants to actually believe the former third overall pick isn’t panning out. I don’t either. But I’m only being realistic.

However, my wording has been incredibly selective, and that has been intentional. I’ve never called Fowler Jr. a bust as an NFL player as a whole, not once. I actually do have hope for Fowler Jr. as an NFL player, but not as a defensive end.

If I was Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Todd Wash, I would move Dante Fowler Jr. to the strong-side linebacker position immediately. Now, this isn’t a report -- the Jaguars haven’t ever even hinted at Fowler Jr. potentially changing positions before. This is simply my take, based on my observations of Fowler Jr’s play in both the NFL and in his days at the University of Florida: He’s a better football player off of the line and in space — He’s an athlete.

So, why should Dante Fowler Jr. move to SAM linebacker?

First off: Defining the 4-3 under SAM linebacker

The 4-3 under SAM linebacker holds similar responsibilities to that of the 3-4 outside linebacker: Set the edge and contain against the run, work as a pass rusher from either the 7-technique or the 9-technique spot outside of the strong-side defensive end, as well as coverage responsibilities against the flats and shallow zones in zone coverage or against the tight end in man coverage.

The SAM lines up near, if not on, the line of scrimmage at the either the 7 or the 9-technique, as I stated before. This is wide enough for the SAM to be given space to work with against the run, in coverage, and as a second-wave pass rusher and not have to take on offensive linemen one on one, necessarily.

The SAM position requires athleticism to be able to excel in space, and in the Jaguars scheme (per GM Dave Caldwell), it requires length as well. Dante Fowler Jr. checks off both of those boxes:

  • Size: 6-3, 267 lbs, 33 34 inch arms
  • Athleticism: 4.60 40 yard dash, 1.56 10 yard split, 4.32 20 yard shuttle

Among defensive ends, as MockDraftable.com doesn’t have any correlations between Fowler Jr. and linebackers currently, Fowler Jr. ranks in the 93rd percentile for both his 40 yard dash and his 10 yard split, as well as in the 75th percentile for his 20 yard shuttle.

He isn’t a “freak athlete”, as he posted a 7.4 3 cone drill (23rd percentile), a 112 inch broad jump (37th percentile), and a 32 12 inch vertical jump (43rd percentile), but his speed and field athleticism whist working in space, which you’re about to see on tape, makes up for his lack of pure bend and explosion if he’s playing the under-SAM position, which doesn’t require an arsenal of pass rush moves against offensive tackles.

The Jaguars 4-3 under SAM last year, held by Myles Jack for the majority of the season, was very limited in snap counts, due to the team running a majority of nickel-coverage defense with a third cornerback replacing the SAM linebacker. All in all, Jack played 239 snaps last year: That’s a mere 22.21% of defensive snaps as a whole out of about 1080 total snaps the defense played in.

The difference between the under-SAM in years past to the under-SAM in the Jaguars projected scheme this year (as Doug Marrone hasn’t revealed any major position changes, and rather seems to want to build on the foundation the Jaguars have defensively) is that this SAM is likely to be more traditional.

Former head coach Gus Bradley used his under-SAM, which he called the OTTO, as more of a pass rusher with some responsibilities against the run to the traditional SAM, but not many coverage responsibilities at all. If the Jaguars take a more traditional approach to the under-SAM this year, as they are projected to do, then the SAM will be much more balanced.

UWDawgpound.com did a great breakdown of the 4-3 under front as a whole a couple years back that goes in detail on every position that you can check out here.

Fowler Jr. creates when he stunts as a pass rusher

When Dante Fowler Jr. lined up as a pure pass rusher last year, well, things didn’t go very well.

In this play, Fowler Jr. displays really the only way he rushed the passer from defensive end at all last year: Running straight at the offensive lineman and hoping he could power through him. That doesn’t work in the NFL like it might have in college, as you see.

And when I say Fowler Jr. used this attempt of a pass rush all last year, I mean that:

Fowler Jr. steps inside, still facing the tackle, and attempts a poor spin move and tries to finish by bull rushing, as he did in the previous play. Again, Fowler Jr. provides no pressure.

Fowler Jr. abandons his attempt of a bull rush and attempts a spin move in this play, and it doesn’t work: Fowler Jr. is a lost cause in the pass rush in this play. Seems repetitive right? It’s because this is all Fowler Jr. really knew how to do at pass rushing defensive end — It isn’t his natural position.

However, when looking at some of Fowler Jr’s sacks both last year and in college, Fowler Jr. knew how to get to the quarterback when he had space to show his athleticism:

Fowler Jr. stunts from outside to the opposite A gap and grabs his second career sack.

He displayed similar skills in his first career sack a quarter before this sack, where Fowler Jr. began his bull rush and then backed off, finding space and a gap to rush Philip Rivers:

Later in the season, Fowler grabbed his fourth and final sack of the season (he had two half sacks in between Week 2 and Week 16) on, you guessed it, an A-gap stunt that let Fowler Jr. breeze right by the offensive linemen as a second wave pass rusher and literally demolish Marcus Mariota:

This can be seen in his college tape as well. Fowler Jr. is simply more natural as a standing pass rusher:

He doesn’t get the sack here, but he stunts the B gap from the 7-technique to force pressure on the QB to duck and step into a collapsing pocket.

It’s almost as if the Jaguars should have known that Fowler Jr. was a better fit as a linebacker in the 4-3 under scheme they were running both now and at the time they drafted him, because he certainly fits the mold.

Again I’ll ask: Seems repetitive, right?

Fowler Jr. is good against the run; The Jaguars SAM linebacker is a priority run-stopper

The 4-3 under linebacker is traditionally a priority run-stopper, with some pass rush and zone-coverage responsibilities as well.

If there’s one thing Fowler Jr. was good at both in 2016 and consistently in college, it was stopping the run, even when playing defensive end:

Fowler Jr. plays contain here and forces Eddie Lacy to stretch outside until he can stretch no longer, grabbing an easy tackle for loss with the help of Telvin Smith.

Per ProFootballFocus.com, Fowler Jr. ranked 9th among defensive ends in the NFL in run-stop percentage at 9.4%. While we all know PFF has it’s issues, this is a pure stat that they have compiled and it proves that, yes, Fowler Jr. is skilled against the run.

In the next play, which came from Fowler Jr’s college tape, he shoots from the under-SAM role in Florida’s hybrid defense into the backfield for an easy stop and forced fumble.

Derrik Klassen, who broke down Fowler Jr’s college tape in five GIFs before his final season at Florida, calls the above play “somewhat reminiscent of the Clowney play against Michigan in 2012”. In the piece, Klassen sums up Fowler Jr’s game as so:

It is not Fowler’s box scores that draw attention to him — it is his insane athleticism

As well as:

Fowler’s skill set allows him to be moved around as a stand-up piece, as opposed to simply playing with his hand in the dirt.

You’re going to get tired of me saying this, but seems repetitive, right?

The Jaguars don’t have an “answer” at SAM linebacker

As I stated before, the SAM linebacker in the Jaguars scheme doesn’t play much due to the nickel defense practically being this team’s base defense. However, when the SAM linebacker is on the field, the Jaguars don’t really have stability or a true SAM on the roster.

After announcing Myles Jack would be the team’s starting middle linebacker moving forward, the team moved former middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to SAM linebacker, a position he never played before. While Posluszny has always been a good run defender, he likely isn’t athletic enough to find success at the position. Posluszny stated himself that “It's going to be the most difficult change of my career”.

Well, Posluszny is heading into his 11th season. It’s not like he has much in the tank to further improve his game, even at another position like SAM linebacker that requires athleticism. I’ve called Posluszny overrated before, but I’ll even disregard my take on him in this scenario, because this position change would be tough for any player that is about to turn 33 years old to take on.

So, with no clear “answer” at the SAM position, why not try Fowler Jr. there? His skill fits the under-SAM much better than it does pass-rushing defensive end, and he’s a backup right now.

You read that correctly: The former third overall pick is a backup and he hasn’t even begun his third season. He started one game last year.

Obviously, if Fowler Jr. ever moved to SAM linebacker, which I don’t expect but do hope for, I wouldn’t automatically assume he’d be a star. It’d take work on his end to work himself into playing the position well, just like any other position in football. But, I do believe that if you put him at the SAM linebacker spot, he’d be given his best opportunity to succeed.

The bottom line is, Fowler Jr’s skill-set fits better at the Jaguars SAM linebacker position. Fowler Jr. is also a backup, so it’s not like the defensive end position is losing out on much if Fowler Jr. moves to SAM. The Jaguars SAM linebacker position is also, technically, a weak spot on the Jaguars defense.

All of this seems, you guessed it: Repetitive, right?