In the months leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, it was quite evident that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were going to be the top-two picks. NFL teams will always put a premium on quarterbacks. So the real debate started with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were not in the quarterback market. Should they go with Leonard Williams, the ever so disruptive interior defensive lineman from USC? How about Amari Cooper, the dynamic pass catcher from Alabama? The biggest need for the young Jaguars was at defensive end where guys like Dante Fowler Jr. and Vic Beasley were considered the creme de la creme.
Healthy and Hungrier Than Ever: Dante Fowler Jr. Poised for a Big Year
Facing Early Adversity
The Jaguars opted to pass on Williams and Cooper, both of whom had successful rookies seasons, in favor of the versatile pass rusher from Florida, Dante Fowler Jr. The 6’3″, 261-pound Florida native has a relentless motor. He also has a vast assemblage of moves that can leave the opposition looking quite foolish. However, he never got the chance to display his talent at the professional level in 2015. Disaster stuck approximately twenty minutes into the Jaguars first, non-padded, practice of rookie minicamp. Fowler tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his left knee and was subsequently place on Injured Reserve, effectively ending his rookie season before it ever began.
It has been 15 months since his injury, and in a little over a week, Fowler will take the field for the first time in an NFL game. The Jaguars showed a great deal of conviction in Fowler. The only other player at his position who is a lock to make the 2016 roster is rookie third-round selection Yannick Ngakoue. That leaves Fowler as “the man”. He will unquestionably be relied on heavily to generate a consistent pass rush from the “LEO” position, which is essentially a pass rush specialist in the Jaguars scheme that is a blend of a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. In recent years, Jacksonville has struggled to find anyone who can play the position at a high level. Players like Andre Branch, now with the Miami Dolphins, and Chris Clemons, now retired, have had difficulty with the position.
Setting the Foundation
If that weren’t pressure enough on Fowler’s 21-year-old shoulders heading into his true first season in the NFL, no one else on the Jaguars roster was able to successfully get after the quarterback in 2015, either. Jared Odrick led the team with just 5.5 sacks last year, and cornerback Aaron Colvin was second, with four. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that a cornerback being second on your team in sacks is a pretty good indication that your team is struggling to take down opposing signal callers.
However, the Jaguars went out and signed Malik Jackson from the reigning world champion Denver Broncos to a six-year, $90 million contract to play defensive tackle next to Fowler. Sen’Derrick Marks, who missed 12 games last season after making the Pro Bowl in 2014 and racking up 8.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position, will be healthy again. Also, the aforementioned Ngakoue will be able to provide depth behind Fowler. He can also offer an edge rushing partner on obvious passing downs.
The Future is Now
Everything is in place for Fowler to have a massive year. He’s now completely healthy and has been lighting it up on the practice field in training camp. It doesn’t look like this is his first time going against other NFL level players. He’s showing off his natural athleticism and the leverage that’s required to be a successful outside pass rusher. Even in the way he speaks, one can tell that this is a player ready to get out on the field and dominate. It has been a long wait for Dante Fowler, but it might have all been worth it.