I picked Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr. as the second edge rusher to break down this year. With the help of the good folks at Draft Breakdown I watched Fowler play against Kentucky, Alabama, LSU, FSU and ECU. Those were the second, third, fifth, 11th and 12th games of Florida's season, respectively.
Let me start off by saying that although the Tennessee game is not a part of this breakdown and I have not gone back and watched it since it happened, I did watch most of it live. Fowler was all over the field that day against my alma mater. His performance left a positive impression on me at the time about what kind of college player he was. These breakdowns, however, are about projecting what kind of NFL player these kids might be. For that reason, watching him closely in the five games named above didn't go exactly the way I thought it would.
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One thing we can all agree on is that Fowler is one hell of an athlete for a man his size. It is easy to see on film, and his performance at the combine only confirmed that fact. At 6'3, 261 pounds and with all the lights and cameras focused in on him, Fowler practically floated 40 yards down the field in just 4.6 seconds. That was a feat that several draft eligible wide receivers couldn't match.
More than just being an athlete, however, what you see on tape is that Fowler is just a good football player period.
Florida lined him up all over the place, but the kid never looked anything but confident on every play. On one play he might be lined up as a defensive end on either side rushing the passer, the next he might be standing up taking a zone drop. On third downs, there was no telling where he would line up or what the hell he would be doing, but he always seemed to make an impact on those money downs.
Having said all that, I have to also say this: the prospect of drafting Fowler in the top 10, let alone the top five, would have me scared shitless if I were running a team this year.
Then again, choosing to not pick him would also have me scared shitless.
First and foremost, Fowler is supposed to be one of the top "edge" players in this draft, but I only saw him actually rush around the edge a handful of times in those five games! (Here is rushing around the edge against Kentucky).
You have to admit just logically that's a problem.
Now I've noted before that turning the corner as an edge rusher seems to be a forgotten art these days, and Fowler is no exception. I'm not saying he can't turn the corner. Hell, I saw him turn the corner those handful of times (I already told you that silly, pay attention!).
How am I supposed to trust a handful of plays out of five games, though?
On the other hand, do I dare penalize him for the small sample size when at least part of the reason why there were so few edge rushes is because his coaching staff put him in so many different positions? Especially knowing that my coaching staff wouldn't make the same ... well, I won't call it a mistake. Let's just all touch and agree we won't be handling him the same way on the next level.
Whoever called Fowler's number to blitz so many times from a middle linebacker type position didn't do him any favors with me as I try to evaluate him for the NFL. I know every college coach tries to sell guys on changing positions or playing more than one position by saying it's something NFL teams like to see, but that isn't always the case. I can't speak for anybody but myself, but I would much rather see a guy become awesome at one position than mostly mediocre or average at several positions. If I want to draft Fowler as an edge rusher, I really couldn't give a shit how he looks blitzing A gaps because he ain't likely to be doing it on a regular basis for me.
I'm just sayin'.
What I want to know is will he consistently set the edge against the run, provide a relentless pass rush from the outside and drop back in coverage where he is supposed to every once in awhile?
If you can answer yes to all of the above, then that's pretty much all I need to know on the field about the guy I draft as an edge rusher.
I just don't see how anybody can be confident that Dante Fowler, Jr. will be able to do all of those things at a very high level within a year or two of being drafted based on what I've seen watching his college tape.
Or maybe based on what I haven't seen.
And just when I'm ready to move Fowler down my totally fictional and imaginary draft board, I think "what about all the good I did see him do in those five games?"
Fowler timed up a few of those A gap blitzes beautifully, giving offensive linemen no chance in hell of actually blocking him. Whether he would be doing that kind of thing for my team doesn't really make that much of a difference, does it? Don't I still have to give him credit for doing it anyway? What about those crazy athletic plays he made a couple of times against option looks where he played the dive first and still made his way back out wide to get a hit on the quarterback after he pulled it?
It was impressive, regardless.
Here's some straight facts though. After watching five games, I have no clue what Fowler's best speed or wide pass rush move is. I sort of doubt he knows either. He had some success with a dip-and-rip move at times, but the guys he won against with that were generally very average. A dip-and-rip move isn't going to scare NFL tackles anyway, unless the guy doing it has unreal get off. Fowler's get off is good, but he isn't quite on that level. At least not yet.
Look, I have serious questions!
Can he execute an arm-over properly? Does he have a long-arm move in his trick bag? What is his main counter move when a tackle stops his speed rush?
Why are you looking at me like that, I really want to know the answer to those questions!
Right now, even after five games, I would still be guessing if I did try to answer. And guess what, so would you!
I'm so vexed by this kid that I've tried to think of an NFL player who has been used in a similar fashion in the league as Fowler was used at Florida. The only guy who even remotely fits the bill is Von Miller. Miller is always on the field, but one down he might be lined up off the ball like a 4-3 outside linebacker, on other downs he might be lined up on the line and outside one of the offensive tackles like a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end.
Still, Miller makes his money pass rushing from the outside, not blitzing A gaps whether he does it sometimes or not. And he makes that money as a pass rusher because he has moves on top of moves. There might not be a more diverse pass rusher in the entire NFL than Von Miller ... believe that! That dude will hit an offensive tackle with dent-and-rip speed rush one play, a bull rush the next and finish his ass off with a spin move on third down.
Can Fowler do that?
I'm going to go ahead and say no ... for now.
Will he be able to do it with a little coaching? Maybe.
And therein lies the real problem for me with evaluating Fowler.
He might just need a little coaching to become one hell of an edge rusher in the NFL. If he didn't at least have the potential to do so, then you don't even waste your time debating whether to take him high or not. You'd just pass and let him be someone else's headache.
Ohhhhhhhh, but you just can't pass on a guy with his kind of natural gifts and abilities.
Especially when it's clear the guy loves to play football.
If a team with a top five pick and a major pass rush need skips over Fowler and he goes on and becomes that double digit sack guy for someone else ... WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSHITITSAFIRE!!!!
Whoever made that call will never live it down.
At the same time if you take the guy in the top five and he never gets to double digit sacks ... CLAWWWWWWDAMERCYYOASSISGRASS!!!!
That's the reality of the situation, regardless. Don't like it? Cry about it. But it isn't going to change.
Hell, I haven't even brought up how average Fowler is at playing the run when he actually has to take on a tight end or offensive tackle.
He has good size and decent upper body strength -- I'm not tripping on the 19 reps of 225 he did at the combine. Anything around 20 is good money in my book -- but his technique is shoddy and inconsistent and he spends too much time looking for the ball rather than kicking the blocker's ass.
A dude with Fowler's ability can fix that pretty easily with a little drill work. But what if he doesn't? Can you imagine a top five pick who can't rush the passer and can't set the edge?!
My stomach does flips just thinking about it.
Potential is such a funny thing. As one of my former teammates so eloquently put it back in the day, potential really just means you haven't done shit yet.
Dante Fowler, Jr. has a ton of potential, but there just isn't any guarantee that he will ever come close to fulfilling any of it. He was fun as hell to watch in college, no doubt, but the NFL is a different animal. I'm imagining a team considering drafting Fowler, who only had 5.5 sacks before the bowl game by the way, and their GM going to Sam's Club to stock up on Tums. Way too many unknowns, but how can you afford to pass on him?
I'm just glad I don't actually have to face that decision. Have fun with that!