The Falcons are paying a lot of money to a former top pass-rush prospect from the 2015 draft who has one good season to his credit. Doing that with Vic Beasley (No. 8 draft pick) did not help their perpetually weak pass rush. The Falcons are calculating that Dante Fowler (No. 3 draft pick) won’t be the next one-year wonder to fall flat.
The parallels aren’t exact between Beasley and Fowler. The expectations are the same. The Falcons need Fowler to repeat his one big season and inject life into their sagging pass rush.
“I know that,” Fowler said Thursday in a conference call with media. “I know I can do that. ... My mentality is to be one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, one of the best linebackers. Last year was my first year. I’m just scratching the surface, to be honest.
“I’m coming with a different mentality. I’m out here to prove something, and I know the team is trying to prove something, too.”
Fowler, like Beasley in 2019, is out to show that his career-best season wasn’t a fluke. The Falcons picked up Beasley’s $12.8 million option and got disappointing results (again). They signed Fowler to a three-year contact that includes $29 million guaranteed (they won’t save salary-cap space if they cut him before 2022).
As mentioned, there are differences between Fowler in 2020 and Beasley in 2019. Fowler’s breakout season came last season with the Rams; Beasley was two years removed from his Pro Bowl campaign. And there’s evidence that Fowler was a better pass-rusher in 2019 than Beasley was in 2016.
The Falcons likely would be happy if Fowler can repeat his production from last season. He recorded 11-1/2 sacks with a quarterback pressure rate that ranked 20th among NFL edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
Fowler said he’s aiming much higher: Michael Strahan’s official season-single sack record of 22-1/2, set in 2001.
“In order to be elite, you have to put up double digits (in sacks) every year,” Fowler said. “That’s my job. The goal is to beat Strahan’s record.”
Beasley seemed destined for pass-rush stardom after he led the NFL with 15-1/2 sacks in his second season. But he ranked just 37th in pressure rate among edge defenders that season. Defenders who are always around the quarterback, even if they don’t sack them, tend to be more consistent pass-rushers.
Beasley never became that kind of player. (The Titans still are paying Beasley $9.5 million guaranteed for 2020 because even mediocre edge rushers are valuable.) I think there’s a better chance Fowler will sustain his level of play from 2019 because he pressured the quarterback even when not getting sacks.
PFF warns that a high percentage of Fowler’s pressures were “clean ups” after a teammate affected the quarterback. It notes that Fowler benefited from playing alongside Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best interior pass-rusher. Those are caveats worth considering.
It’s also possible that Fowler, who turns 26 in August, is just getting started. His 2015 season with Jacksonville was wiped out by an ACL injury. Fowler hadn’t played more than 53 percent of defensive snaps in a season for the Jaguars when they traded him to the Rams in October 2018.
With the Falcons, Fowler will play alongside tackle Grady Jarrett. He’s not on Donald’s level, but Jarrett is an excellent interior pass rusher. You can envision the Jarrett-Fowler tandem giving quarterbacks trouble.
That’s assuming Fowler’s 2019 season doesn’t end up being an outlier. Fowler got his chance to shine in Los Angeles and took advantage.
“Just being consistent,” he said of the difference. “That is still not a thing, consistently sacking. I had at least had four layups (I missed). We could be talking about 16, 16 1/2-sack Dante Fowler instead of 11-1/2. ... I’ve got a lot to prove, and I’m just ready to show what I can do.”
Fowler is the only major addition to the Falcons’ pass-rush group. They lost one useful member, Adrian Clayborn, when he signed with the Browns. The Falcons are selling the development of their incumbents.
That includes Takk McKinley (offseason shoulder surgery), second-year end John Cominsky (9.6 percent of defensive snaps in 2019) and veteran end Steven Means (near-minimum salary). Add a rookie to the mix if the Falcons draft a pass rusher.
Thing is, the Falcons also talked a lot about developing the pass rush before the 2019 season. Specifically, coach Dan Quinn said he would take a hands-on role tutoring Beasley. The result was more lackluster production from Beasley (except it cost the Falcons $12.8 million in salary-cap space instead of $4.6 million).
The Falcons had a feeble pass rush again in 2019. They haven't had a good one during any of Quinn's five seasons or, really, since 2004. Fowler is the best free-agent pass-rusher they've signed since they got Dwight Freeney in 2016.
“It’s not just about one person,” Fowler said. “Your abilities are going to get you to the quarterback, but most of the time you have to work together as a front four, front seven.”
Fowler added about his new teammates: “They don’t like the slander being talked about them that they don’t get to the quarterback.”
It’s not slander if it’s true. Fowler was hired to help change that. He has the talent. The big question is whether, like Beasley, Fowler’s best season was a one-off.