Dante Fowler Jr. had a mediocre debut as a player in 2016, but he may have started to hit his stride toward the end of the season.
Just one season into his career (discounting his 2015 rookie season that he missed due to injury), Dante Fowler Jr. has not done enough to impress the Jacksonville Jaguars faithful. Fowler did not look particularly explosive as an athlete or disruptive as a pass rusher.
In short, for a first year, Fowler was far from the dominant pass rusher that he was drafted to be when the Jags took him third overall in 2015.
Fowler’s under-performance (based on expectations) was contrasted sharply with rookie Yannick Ngakoue who set a franchise record for rookies with eight sacks in 2016. Ngakoue, a third round pick in 2016, flashed more than Fowler and looks like the future at the position. Ngakoue tacked on four forced fumbles to go with his sacks.
That isn’t to say that Fowler should simply be written off. Certainly there is room for improvement after just four sacks, but his production was not wholly outside the norm for first-year pass rushers. As noted by SB Nation’s Adam Stites, it can take some time for pass rushers to come into their own. Vic Beasley, another first-round talent drafted in 2015, exploded in year two for a league-leading 15.5 sacks after just four sacks the year before.
That isn’t to say Fowler is going to translate his game like Beasley. Beasley (who could have been drafted third overall and nobody would have been surprised) is a freak athlete. Fowler has looked somewhat more limited athletically since entering the NFL.
But Pro Football Focus does offer some hope.
Cherry picking two games to end the season in 2016 certainly isn’t a perfect way to extrapolate future production from Fowler, but it is a better than it may appear at first glance. Those two games – by far the Jags’ most competitive of 2016 – came under new head coach Doug Marrone after the Jags opted to ditch former head coach Gus Bradley and his failing defense.
While PFF’s tracking system isn’t perfect and there are other counts out there, it does give an indication that Fowler may be finding his feet. It will take time, much like for other pass rushers, for him to build up the momentum to be a top-tier pass rusher (if he ever becomes one) but that momentum may already be building. This offseason may be a chance for him to cement the lessons he learned and build on that initial foundation.
At this point in the offseason it is easy to look at the sack totals and look at some of the game tape and write Fowler off. It’s easy to be dismissive because, frankly, he didn’t shine. But there may be some growth there and that’s worth watching.