With the offseason slowing down a bit, it’s a fine time to take a closer look at players who didn’t live up to their standards or their promise in 2020, but have a chance to bounce back in 2021. There are several Falcons who belong on this list and several more who were fine last year and could be headed for more significant breakouts in 2021, but I think we can all agree the most logical candidate for this particular writeup is Dante Fowler.
The Falcons elected to keep their front office and coaching staff in place heading into 2020, which put a lot of pressure for a team with a tight budget to win right away. Their biggest splash of the offseason was Fowler, a 26-year-old pass rusher who was among the league leaders in sacks and pressures for the Rams in 2019. As Adnan Ikic noted at the time, Dan Quinn and company really couldn’t afford for the signing to not work out, and we hoped our concerns about his iffy consistency wouldn’t be borne out.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Fowler did not have the kind of season the team was dreaming of. He reportedly struggled with injury throughout the year, wasn’t particularly effective as a run stopper (which was sort of expected) or a pass rusher (less expected), and as a result came out of the year with just 3 sacks to his name. Sacks aren’t everything and Fowler was still a useful player, but he fell far short of expectations for the Falcons.
More from Raheem Morris on Dante Fowler: "If you're going to be known for getting sacks, you've got to get sacks" He adds that he expects him to get back on track next year.— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) December 30, 2020
Heading into 2021, Fowler is still easily the team’s most talented and proven pass rushing threat off the edge, and he’ll be working with a new coaching staff that will be counting on him to rush the passer and get results.
Why the Falcons need a bounceback
It should be blatantly obvious to anyone who watched this team last year that this team needs to be able to impact the passer more effectively, something Dean Pees is likely to try to accomplish with brisk, vigorous blitzing. His defenses in Tennessee did so at a rate that was in the top half of the league both years he was there, but the effectiveness of those efforts varied, and Pees was never working with an edge rusher who has Fowler’s upside, with only Harold Landry coming close. It’s not as though Atlanta was completely hopeless last year even with a downbeat year from Fowler, as ESPN ranked the Falcons as the team with the 4th-best pass rush win rate in the NFL. The problem was turning those initial wins into pressures (where the team was middle of the pack, per Pro Football Reference) and sacks (where they were 23rd in the league). It’s hard to look at this roster as it’s constructed today and see a massive coverage improvement coming, so the urgency around the pass rush’s success has only increased.
The bottom line for Atlanta is that they rarely had games when their coverage was up to snuff and the pass rush was on point as well. When they did do so, as was the case in that masterful game against the Chiefs and against a very rattled Derek Carr, they clamped down hard on some very capable offenses. When they didn’t, which happened a lot and particularly late in games, they tended to lose.
Dean Pees brings a blitz-first philosphy to Atlanta and has promised to throw the kitchen sink at opposing quarterbacks, but you can send the house and the house can whiff on a quarterback. You still need capable pass rushers to do the work on a down-by-down basis, and Fowler is easily the most talented edge rusher Atlanta has on the roster. They need that bounceback because if Fowler is working at 100% and wreaking havoc with his speed, it makes life easier for everyone else. The Fowler we saw in Los Angeles in 2019 was healthy, playing alongside some terrific defenders like Aaron Donald, and got to blitz more often, and Pees and company will count on that being the Fowler we see for the Falcons in 2021. If he can be a dervish on this defense again, Atlanta benefits.
How likely is Dante Fowler to improve?
Slightly, I’d say he’s a virtual lock. If we’re talking about putting double digit sacks and being among the league leaders in pressures, though, I’d pump the brakes a bit.
Let’s start with the reasons for optimism. The 2020 season was Fowler’s career low for sacks and career low for games played, and he missed a ton of tackles last year, including some sack opportunities. If he gets to blitz more often, if he’s healthier and if he just plays in more games, it’s likely his numbers will rise. If Pees is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator and coverage takes a step forward, even a little more time for Fowler to wreak havoc will lead to better results, given that his speed once he’s won his matchup is one of the things that makes him so dangerous in the first place. The Falcons seem optimistic he’ll rebound.
What I’m more skeptical of is a return to his 2019 form, which is the outlier in his career thus far. That year, Fowler simply got more pressure playing for a Wade Phillips defense alongside guys like Aaron Donald, and it resulted in double digit sacks and one of the best pressure totals in the NFL. This year, he’ll be playing without that level of talent on the defensive front—Grady Jarrett is stellar but he’s one man—and will be trying to catch lightning in a bottle again. When you consider his fuller career to this point, it’s clear that he’s young enough and talented enough to do it again, but it would help a great deal if the circumstances were favorable. I’m not so sure they will be in Atlanta in 2021, not with this team in the middle of what looks like a multi-year overhaul of the D.
All this talk of pass-rushers, sacks and pressures on the TL...— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) October 22, 2020
Dante Fowler's pressure rates per PFF:
Again, y'all need to pay more attention to pressures since they're more predictive of future outcomes than sacks
Ultimately, Fowler will look better this year, full stop, so long as he’s healthy. The question is really to what degree, and that question has profound impacts for his future in Atlanta and this team’s pass rush in 2021.