When teams look for pass-rushing outside linebackers in the draft, they often have to convert a player that played defensive end in a 4-3 system while in college. Transitioning to 3-4 outside linebacker puts added pressure on a young player. Instead of just focusing on rushing the passer, they have to learn how to rush from a two-point stance and drop into coverage. A lot of the time, they have to work hard to add weight, although that’s not always the case. Washington has been through this before when it drafted Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, both of whom were 4-3 ends in college.
But Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler doesn’t have to worry about this. He has the benefit of having played in a hybrid system in college. He’s already at the ideal size and weight for an outside linebacker at 6 feet 3, 261 pounds. While other pass rushers in this class, like Vic Beasley and Randy Gregory, are having to bulk up, Fowler has already proven he can play at the ideal weight.
The advantage of playing in a hybrid scheme in college is huge for Fowler. He’s proven he’s versatile and can be used as a piece to move around and rush from different positions. Not only does he line up across from the left tackle, he can flip to the right side, play 4-3 end with his hand in the dirt or even shift inside to rush from the inside linebacker spot.
Here you can see Fowler lining up in the middle of the field. He attacks the A gap to the right of the center before quickly spinning back inside. Fowler forces Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to step up in the pocket and scramble. Fowler shows off another one of his biggest traits, his relentless motor. Fowler misses out on the sack initially, but quickly gets back up and chases down Winston from behind to secure the sack.
That motor shows on every snap Fowler plays. Some teams sent multiple blockers his way, but Fowler would take them on while other rushers would be content to occupy multiple blockers.
On this play, LSU send a tight end and running back to Fowlers’ side. Fowler does an excellent job drawing the attention of both blockers, allowing his inside linebacker to come free on a delayed blitz. But Fowler doesn’t give up on the play there. He uses a club-and-swim move to get past the tight end before using the same combination to skip back inside past the blocking running back. When Fowler’s teammate misses the sack, Fowler maintains his pursuit, bringing down the quarterback for the sack.
That club-and-swim move is a favorite of Fowler. He posses strong hands that knock away blockers’ hands. He uses the move often to get inside tackles who over-set to the outside. However, outside of that move, Fowler is raw as a pass rusher. I rarely saw him beat a tackle to the edge and run the arc. He’s athletic, but doesn’t have the same first-step burst that some of the other pass rushers in this class have.
This was a big moment against LSU, third and five late in the fourth quarter of a tie game. This is the moment you want your top pass rusher to step up and make a play. Fowler attempts to use a speed rush to beat left tackle La’el Collins to the edge. Collins manages to kick-slide quickly enough to cut off Fowler, who then reverts back to his club-and-swim move. But his club attempt fails to knock away Collins’s hands. Fowler lacks a back up plan when his first move fails. After the club failed, Collins was easily able to stonewall Fowler.
Fowler is also erratic at times as a rusher. He often has wasted movements that only slow down his pass rush and give the tackle a chance to get set.
You can see here that Fowler doesn’t have a refined pass-rushing technique. He attempts a couple of stutter steps, flashes his hands, uses head fakes and everything else he can think of to find a weakness in his blocker. But the tackle simply kick-slides and remains patient as Fowler eventually initiates contact and gets run past the quarterback with ease.
At this point in his career, Fowler relies a lot on his athleticism as a pass rusher. He, like every player in the draft, will need plenty of coaching on his technique to reach his potential, which is very high. But his athleticism, versatility and motor should carry him a long way. If his work ethic off the field is like his motor on it, and he can take tough coaching, there’s reason to believe Fowler can develop into one of the top pass rushers in the NFL down the line.