With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
We enter the top five of this year's SI 64 rankings with Florida's Dante Fowler Jr., the DE/OLB who put on quite the show at the NFL combine; he ran a 4.61 40-yard dash while wearing a snazzy gold watch.
Bio: Starting from his first game as a true freshman (three tackles, including a half-tackle for loss), Dante Fowler was productive for Florida, no matter where the coaching staff opted to line him up. Fowler spent much of his time as a defensive end for his first two seasons, then transitioned to an outside linebacker role in 2014. All told, he recorded 140 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. The majority of all that production came in 2014, when Fowler (60 tackles, 15 TFL, 8.0 sacks) was named team MVP and landed on the All-SEC first team.
“I can do a lot for team," Fowler said. "I create a lot of problems for the offense and really just stressing out coordinators out. ... I was a linebacker growing up. And I went to defensive end my sophomore year and I really liked it. I was versatile and fortunate enough to be able to play both."
Fowler closed his Gators career in style, dropping East Carolina quarterback—and 2015 draft prospect—Shane Carden three times during a 28–20 Birmingham Bowl win. Earlier in the season Fowler registered a career-high 11 tackles against LSU.
He also was one of this year's combine stars, thanks to a loose, even downright jovial press conference. At one point Fowler was asked why he was in such a good mood. His response: "I don’t like to be rude. You don’t want to be all kinds of grumpy and rude. You don’t want to be that. You get wrinkles from all that stuff."
But he later promised, as his efforts at Florida proved, that he can "flip a switch" when the situations calls for it.
"I want teams to know that I’m a coachable guy," he said. "That I’m a team player and a fit for their team. I want to be that kind of guy that can play in this league."
Strengths: Unlike some of his edge-rushing counterparts in this draft, Fowler could be envisioned as a fit in either a 3–4 or 4–3 (or a hybrid) scheme. That's certain to work to his advantage come Round 1, since all 32 teams can slot him in on their boards somewhere.
Fowler ought to benefit, too, from having a more defined position—he was Florida's "Buck" linebacker this past season, but was asked to shift around the defense repeatedly during his three years there. Locking his emerging skill set into place as a combo DE/OLB, within an NFL defense, will help him continue to develop.
He has the size (6'3", 261 pounds) to hold up as a DE, and it's worth pointing out for any team eyeing him for that role that Fowler dropped weight so he could play linebacker. Carrying upwards of 270 pounds should not be much of an issue. Yet, Fowler also features the quickness and balance to turn the corner as a pass-rusher or to chase down run plays wide. Florida occasionally blitzed him inside, from his linebacker spot.
Fowler even took on some coverage responsibilities. Or, as he puts it: "I like to go out there and mess with the receivers, I can play in the flat and in the curls. ... I can play everywhere."
Weaknesses: Fowler was really good at just about everything Florida asked him to do. Can he become great in at least one aspect of his game? The answer will determine whether Fowler is a solid player or a superstar. To reach the latter stratosphere, Fowler has to start by converting his athleticism into a more well-rounded approach pressuring the quarterback—even the best college speed rushers can struggle making the NFL leap if they fail to improve their secondary moves.
Improvement here may come in time merely by sticking at one position, but Fowler shows a little too much of that pin-the-ears back mentality rather than diagnosing plays. He can run himself out of position because of it.
Better technique (and possibly packing back on some of those lost pounds) is a must for Fowler to be effective setting an edge vs. the run—especially if he lands with a 4–3 team. With his 4.6 40-yard speed, Fowler will go track down backs outside the tackle box; he's less effective making plays when the actions heads directly at him.
Conclusion: In this uncertain draft class, Fowler stands out as a top-10 talent. Another likely first-rounder, LSU OT La'el Collins, noted that he was able to get better simply by preparing to go up against Fowler this past season.
Collins said it was beneficial "game planning against a guy like Dante Fowler—somebody who is an extremely good pass rusher, somebody who can cause problems. Being able to look at him and break down film on him, understanding his moves and what he likes to do and being able to compete against him is nice."
Fowler's experience floating between DE and OLB has to appeal to NFL defensive coordinators. He may even have the speed/strength combo to slide inside as a pass-rushing tackle on occasion, if a team really wants to get creative with how it uses him. Given some time to settle into his niche and to get a better feel for his plan off attack at the line, and Fowler has All-Pro potential. Feel free to consider him among the early favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year.