Imagine life as Thomas Dimitroff right now. You’re social distancing like a responsible American, meandering around your vast, rose bush-adorned estate with an upside-down visor cocked sideways on your head. You saunter past a spare bedroom where you keep your collection of bike shorts, hung neatly on dozens of garment racks. You pause and think about going in, but you’ve already spent hours in that room over the past week, categorizing every pair by color and fabric type. Then it hits you: you’re an NFL GM, a real life NFL GM. “Get back to work, Thomas!” you scream.
We’re now a week and a half into free agency. Let’s give the front office some credit where is credit is due. The decision to sign Dante Fowler was a big swing, but it is undoubtedly one they had to take. So what should we realistically expect from Fowler in terms of production in 2020?
Fowler is coming off his best season as a professional. He racked up 11.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, 49 QB hurries, 16 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, and 34 defensive stops. His overall PFF rating of 72.1 ranked 27th among edges that played at least 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. (His run defense grade of 75.0 ranked 19th. And his pass rush grade of 73.4 ranked 26th.) If he can come close to replicating that production in Atlanta, then he will represent a substantial upgrade over Vic Beasley. But was his 2019 campaign a fluke? Was it the result of him playing next to the best defensive tackle in the NFL (Aaron Donald)? The short answer is maybe, but probably not. Let’s take a look back and I’ll explain why.
Fowler was drafted in 2015 but missed his rookie year after tearing his ACL in minicamp. In 2016, he played on a bad defense; 28th best according to PFF. The next season was a much different story, because the Jaguars got their act together in 2017 and somehow fielded PFF’s 5th best defense. Fowler’s sacks jumped from 4 to 8 between 2016 and 2017, and his pass rush grade ticked up.
Fast forward to 2018. The Jaguars defense regressed substantially, earning PFF’s 26th best grade. Fowler only played in 7 games for the Jaguars that season because they traded him to the Rams at the end of October. The Rams switched his position, making him an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. Fowler admittedly struggled adjusting to a new position and a new scheme after he was traded, but that’s fair, particularly because he was tasked with making those changes in the middle of a season, which is not an easy feat.
It’s worth noting that Fowler’s pass rush grades have steadily improved since 2016. (58.7 in 2016, 69.7 in 2017, 71.5 in 2018, and a career-best 73.4 in 2019.) That’s good news for the Falcons, because it suggests that his production in 2019 wasn’t a flash in the pan, so to speak. It suggests he is gradually getting better and that 2019 may illustrate his true ceiling. Fowler benefited from playing next to Donald and on a top ten defense last season. And truth be told, more than a quarter of his pressures last season were “clean-up” pressures. In other words, other players would get the initial pressure and then Fowler would make his play.
Here’s the bottom line: Fowler’s overall development might’ve been hampered to some degree playing in Jacksonville. But Grady Jarrett has been forced to play on some bad defenses and that hasn’t held him back, so we should be careful about making excuses for Fowler’s inconsistent production. He also benefited enormously playing on a stellar defense last season. That said, there’s reason to think 2019 wasn’t a fluke and that he can produce at a similar clip going forward, especially with Jarrett by his side.
Your thoughts, Falcoholics?