Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr. has had a rough start to his NFL career, which began with tearing his ACL in the first rookie mini-camp of the season a week or so after being selected with the third overall pick. He knocked Fowler out for his entire rookie season and put him on the back burner.
The rough start didn’t end with the torn ACL, as Fowler struggled during the 2016 season to really make an impact as a pass rusher. For one, Fowler lost his starting role, which most assumed was a given, to third-round pick Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue quickly emerged as someone who could sack the quarterback, where Fowler struggled to even put pressure on the quarterback. It wasn’t all bad for Fowler, as he did a nice job against the run, but the reality is you don’t pick a pass rusher with the third overall pick to be good against the run, you pick them to be good rushing the passer.
Fowler had a few bright spots in 2016 rushing the passer, a lot of it coming from stunts on the defensive line but he did have at least one game where he looked legitimately good coming off the edge. Everyone’s favorite, Pro Football Focus, noted that Fowler closed 2016 on a high note in the final two games, as the team as a whole looked notably better.
Dante Fowler Jr. ended his 2016 season on a high note and he's looking to take another leap forward in 2017. pic.twitter.com/2i8kg8bg4c— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 28, 2017
Fowler himself says he’s ready to make that leap in 2017 and expects it.
“I think it will happen,” Fowler told Hays Carlyon of Gridiron Now. “It was a big learning experience for me last year on and off the field. That was my first year on the field. I was like a freshman in college all over again, getting used to the guys at this level. It gave me an idea of how big and strong some of these guys are.”
The Jaguars have continued to invest heavily in their defensive line, as they should, which should help both Fowler and Ngakoue take the next step in their evolution as NFL pass rushers. The biggest issue with Fowler in his 2016 season was he simply didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do when rushing the passer. He didn’t really have any pass rush moves, unlike Ngakoue’s kind of hop jump/dip move, and was just kind of all over the place if he couldn’t just flat out beat the tackle off the snap around the edge.
You’ll probably remember a few times where Fowler would bring his initial rush, it get stopped and then he’d random try to spin but would end up just kind of with his back to the offensive lineman and ultimately going nowhere. That’s been Fowler’s biggest flaw is that he has limited explosive athleticism* and he doesn’t seem to know how to optimize it and has no real pass rush moves. Picking up a move, even if it’s an inside counter or a simple swim move, can go a long way for Fowler as a pass rusher.
Whether Fowler starts or not isn’t really relevant, as the team is going to constantly rotate defensive lineman and even last year he played nearly as many snaps as Ngakoue in the same position, but Fowler will need to produce in his snaps as a pass rusher. The team has added Calais Campbell on the other side and still have Malik Jackson inside, so Ngakoue and Fowler should receive more favorable match ups and they’ll need to win them.
I’m still very skeptical of Fowler as an effective pass rusher long term, but as it stands he’s part of the Jaguars rotation so they need him to take that next step, especially if Ngakoue has a dip in production going into his second season.
Fowler will be one of the players to focus on, even in training camp, to see if he’s developed any pass rushing moves.
*Yes, I know Fowler ran a fast 40-yard dash time, but every other measure of athleticism the NFL uses he (relative to other pass rushers) did not grade out well. He’s an in-line athlete, but not an explosive one and that’s fine.