Could Dante Fowler Jr. be the Next Former Gator to Cash In?
Former Florida Gators pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr.'s NFL career has been about as up-and-down as they come.
The fifth-year NFL veteran, set to become a free agent when the new league year kicks off on March 18th, began as a the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. With 14.5 sacks, 33 tackles for loss, and five forced fumbles on his résumé, to pair with 4.6s 40 yard dash speed at 6-3, 261 lbs., Fowler looked to become the NFL's next dominant weak-side pass rusher.
Before his first career practice was over, however, Fowler's rookie year was done. He suffered a torn ACL in his first career practice with Jacksonville, and that injury derailed his entire career projection.
The next season, Fowler was the week one starter for Jacksonville as their primary pass rusher. By week two, he had lost the job to third round rookie defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, and Fowler never started for the Jaguars again.
Though, as Jacksonville's third, rotational defensive end from that point forward, Fowler accumulated 14 sacks through the middle of the 2018 season. Instrumental to Jacksonville's league-leading pass rush in 2017 in that role, Fowler ranked tied for third on the team in sacks with eight as the Jaguars found a way to the AFC Championship.
While Jacksonville blew a lead to New England in that game, Fowler found a way to keep the Jags in it with two clutch sacks on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The Jaguars crumbled in 2018 and did not have the resources to pay Fowler the money he was going to pursure as a free agent. Though Fowler had found success in his role, Ngakoue was clearly a better option as the full-time starter at defensive end, and it would have been a poor use of cap space to pay a backup something in the eight-figures.
And that goes without noting the drama that surrounded Fowler, both on and off the field and brought upon both by himself and by Jacksonville. From Jacksonville unrightfully fining Fowler over $700,000 from missing voluntary rehab and medical offseason appointments, to Fowler refereeing a fight between the mother of his child and girlfriend, to Fowler being charged with battery, criminal mischief, and petty theft for an incident during the 2017 offseason, it was clear that he needed a fresh start elsewhere.
So, Jacksonville traded Fowler to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2019 third and a 2020 fifth round pick before the 2019 trade deadline. Since, Fowler has posted 13.5 sacks across 24 games, starting 20 and recording 11 of those sacks as a full-time starter this past season.
You'd figure Fowler would have everything figured out by now, no?
Because he does not.
The Rams are in a pickle entering the 2020 offseason. The team currently owns a mere $14,716,619 in cap space, per Over the Cap, and Fowler is on a list of pending free agents that also includes several starters such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, linebacker Cory Littleton, and others. That doesn't mention other players who are eligible for a contract extension as well, such as star cornerback and fellow former Jaguar Jalen Ramsey.
Oh, and the Rams missed the playoffs this past season after making the Super Bowl just over a year ago. There are needs to be addressed.
While it had appeared that Fowler had finally found an NFL home in Los Angeles, the Rams may end up being Fowler's springboard towards a big contract in free agency given their roster situation. Losing Fowler, who changed positions to start at outside linebacker in the Rams' 3-4, one-gapping defensive scheme, will certainly hurt Los Angeles, but it's a move that the team may be forced to live with.
Unless Los Angeles gets the money together to prioritize and pay Fowler what he wants, expect Fowler to hit free agency and become the latest former Florida player to make some big bucks.
Fits that would make sense, from a team need and cap space perspective, include the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, and Baltimore Ravens.
Another intriguing fit, though it will take some maneuvering, would be the Atlanta Falcons. There, Fowler would be reunited with former Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as his head coach, who knows a thing or two about how to utilize Fowler's talents.
The Falcons are in a bit of salary cap trouble themselves, but are expected to make some cuts and tough pending free agent decisions in search of a pass rusher this offseason. Should Atlanta create enough space, the Falcons could become an ideal destination for Fowler.
Regardless of where he ends up, however, Fowler has unconventionally paved a way towards cashing in this offseason.
Last year, former Florida offensive lineman Trent Brown notably became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history after signing a four year, $66 million deal with the Oakland Raiders. Fowler looks to be the next Gator to receive a big payday on the open market.