Every once in a while a player comes along that a head coach or General Manager ties his fate to. While it’s never just one player that someone’s fate hinges on, if that player succeeds and the gamble pays off that coach or GM looks like a genius. If the player fails then that decision maker is most likely out of a job.
We saw it with Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff when he traded a treasure chest of draft picks to move up from pick 27 to pick 6 in the 2011 Draft in order to select Julio Jones. Had Julio not worked out, Dimitroff would’ve been fired long ago. Because Jones became the best wide receiver in the NFL, however, Dimitroff not only survived the gamble but the move bought him just enough good will to survive the firing of Mike Smith after back to back failed seasons in 2013 and 2014.
This player whom a head coach or GM ties himself to is normally a high stakes draft pick, and normally a quarterback at that (think Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray as an example). Sometimes if the situation calls for it, however, that crossroads in a decision maker’s career can come in the form of a high profile free agent signing.
Following back to back 7-9 seasons, Dan Quinn’s crossroads as Atlanta’s head coach have come in the form of Dante Fowler Jr.
Quinn and Dimitroff recognize that this season is likely their final chance to save their jobs, and they pulled out the stops in free agency when they signed Dante Fowler to a 3-year contract worth $45 million.
The former number three overall pick out of the University of Florida is looked at as the key ingredient to fixing a pass rushing unit that ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks. For as disappointing as he was at his $12.8 million 2019 price tag, Vic Beasley Jr. led the Falcons with 8.0 sacks last year before departing in free agency. Adrian Clayborn, who was third on the team with 4.0 sacks, is also no longer on the team.
The only players on Atlanta’s current roster who recorded at least one sack for the team last year are Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, Tyeler Davison (who had 1.0), and Allen Bailey (who had 1.0). Their combined sack total was 13.0. Players accounting for 51.7% of the team’s sack total in 2019 have left in free agency, and Fowler has been brought in as the big fish tasked with replenishing those numbers.
Dante Fowler is coming off of a career season in Los Angeles. He was 9th in the NFL last season with a career high 11.5 sacks, and 9th with a career high 18 tackles for loss. In addition to that, he showed proficiency in stopping the run with a career high 34 run stops (12 more than in any other single season). He was also 15th in the league with 35 pressures, indicating that the high sack count wasn’t the result of plays just breaking his way.
Quinn coached Fowler at the University of Florida in 2012 so there’s some sense of familiarity there.
The risk, however, is that Fowler had that magnificent season in what amounted to a contract year while playing alongside one of the most dominant defensive lineman the NFL has ever seen in Aaron Donald, who led all DTs with 12.5 sacks and led all NFL players with 24 tackles for loss in 2019.
This was actually the third straight year in which Donald led all DTs in sacks, including a 2018 season where he led the entire league with 20.5 sacks. Donald has also led all DTs in TFL in each of the past four seasons (well, he was tied with Grady Jarrett for first in 2017), and has led the league in that category in each of the past two years.
Atlanta, however, chose to look at the positives with Fowler when making this signing - he’s in the prime of his career at age 25 (2020 will be his age-26 season), his numbers and career performance are the upswing, and while nobody is Aaron Donald the Falcons currently have their own elite DT in Grady Jarrett.
Jarrett was second among all DTs in tackles for loss with 17 last year, and he was second among all DTs with 40 run stops. His PFF pass rush grade of 86.5 was fourth among all DTs in 2019 (Donald was first).
The Falcons have made a concentrated effort in rebuilding their defensive line this offseason with Fowler’s signing and the selection of skilled pass rushing DT Marlon Davidson in the second round of the NFL Draft. Fowler will have help as he looks to key in on opposing QBs in 2020. Atlanta is also banking on Takk McKinley finally breaking out in what is essentially his own contract year.
The Falcons, and Dan Quinn especially, can’t afford to have Fowler regress (as many players do immediately after having a career year in their contract season). If he does, then their pass rush will likely be lacking again, and they’ll be stuck with an albatross of a contract as Fowler’s cap hit increases from $6.6 million to $18.6 million next year (with $15.3 million in dead cap money if cut).
Atlanta needs Fowler to succeed. Now, success doesn’t have to come in only one form where Fowler has gaudy league leading sack numbers. If Fowler does his job off the edge, and his presence helps someone like McKinley rack up double digit sacks while Dante’s own total stays around 10 that would also be considered a successful season by many.
A flop in the Fowler signing will likely result in another underwhelming season for the Falcons (remember, Arthur Blank said he expects the playoffs in 2020), and that will likely be the final nail in Dan Quinn’s coffin as head coach of the Falcons. As a matter of fact, that will likely result in Dimitroff’s termination as well.
Quinn and Dimitroff are stumbling following back to back 7-9 seasons. Dante Fowler will act as either a crutch to help them regain their balance, or he’ll be the final hit which knocks them both to the ground.