Dante Fowler Jr. is obviously eager to bounce back from a lost rookie season as quickly as possible.
What has become rather apparent this offseason — aside from optimistic observations about his “star” potential — is the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end’s unyielding nature. Fowler has been involved in his share of fights on and off the field the last few months.
After some heated mid-August altercations at practice with teammates, Fowler was ejected a week later from a joint practice with Tampa Bay after punching Buccaneers offensive guard Ali Marpet in the helmet.
Although the third overall selection in 2015 has impressed coaches with his speed and tenacity, Fowler quickly found himself in damage control mode when it comes to his image. An offseason video appeared to show Fowler as a referee for a fistfight between two women identified by TMZ as the mother of his child and current girlfriend. An “embarrassed” Fowler apologized for his role in that fracas and said, “emotions got the best of all of us.”
Just 22, Fowler is learning the importance of becoming a poised professional. The dust-ups, at least for now, are considered growing pains for a young player with immense potential.
What’s most encouraging is that he’s put last year’s humbling NFL initiation behind him. Just eight days after he was drafted, Fowler tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on the first day of rookie minicamp. His pro debut was put on hold for a year. The surgically repaired knee is sound, and he’s wondered aloud about how soon he can start playing without a protective brace.
On an overhauled Jaguars defense with an infusion of new talent that also includes rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey (first-round pick), defensive tackle Malik Jackson ($90 million free-agent addition from Denver) and middle linebacker Myles Jack (second-round pick), much is expected of Fowler.
The Jaguars intend to line up the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Fowler at the “Leo” position in their 4-3 scheme, which means he’ll move around to take advantage of matchups in bringing pass-rush pressure off the edge. It’s worth noting that Fowler has dropped 27 pounds from his listed weight as a sophomore with the Florida Gators three years ago.
“We’re really pressuring him right now to become a pro at an early age,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said last week.
Fowler has been counseled on the need to excel in the classroom, taking that to the field and continuing to study game tape on his own. And he said he’s gotten the message loud and clear.
“If they’re telling me something, they’re telling me because they care for me,” Fowler said. “They know I can become a better pro. I’m going to listen to them. I love (head coach) Gus Bradley and Wash. They’re teaching me not to just become a dominant player, but a man off the field, too. I really respect that.”
Some eyebrows raised when the Jaguars selected Fowler so high in the draft — the Florida star had 8.5 sacks with 15 tackles for loss in his final season as a junior. He was viewed as having tremendous upside, with a penchant for making impact plays and possessing unique pass-rushing skills, so his first-round draft stock soared.
Then he was lost for a year, delaying the opportunity to speed up his learning curve for what it takes to make it in the NFL. Young players realize rather quickly upon arrival that talent isn’t enough. Professionals study their opponents, which forces players to develop their techniques to survive.
In Fowler’s case, he’s expected to learn this as soon as possible. Coaching him includes one-on-one consultation about his pass rushing. He’s been shown extensive video of successful NFL pass-rushing defensive ends.
“They don’t know what the league is like and what they have to do,” Wash said. “As a great athlete in college, a lot of guys don’t have to do it. At this level, everybody’s good.
“He has to continue to get better at the mental side of the game, and he is, so we’re excited about that. We just have to keep challenging him, because I think he’s going to be a good one.”
Fowler doesn’t seem to be lacking in confidence.
“Once I see what I’m doing and what I’m supposed to do, it’s going to elevate in a jiffy,” he said. “Once I get everything in the right pieces, I’ll be fine.”
He repeated Wash’s mantra about how “everybody’s good at this level,” another indication Fowler is getting the message loud and clear.
“You always have to bring your ‘A’ game, and you just can’t bring your ‘A’ game physically,” he said. “You have to be able to do things fundamentally. That’s what I’m learning right now, my fundamentals on the field and off the field. Once I get those right, I’ll be fine.
“I’m not always going to win with athletic ability. There’s another way I can win, with my fundamentals or my hands – and also mentally by studying and knowing my personnel and knowing the little things tackles do. All of those things can elevate your game.”