It’s not hard to be labeled as the Cowboys’ biggest free agent signing when the team only brought in three outside players, but nevertheless Dante Fowler carries that title heading into the 2022 season. The former third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft hasn’t had the career many expected him to, but Fowler has still been fairly productive.
Dallas signed the edge rusher to a cheap one-year deal after losing Randy Gregory in free agency. They added him after bringing back Dorance Armstrong and later went on to draft Sam Williams in the second round of the draft. It’s safe to say that Fowler - who has a history with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn - will have to compete for his role, but recent seasons suggest Fowler could have a big year in store.
Fowler was once a standout player for the Florida Gators, tallying 8.5 sacks in his junior season. Quinn was the Gators’ defensive coordinator for Fowler’s first season at Florida, having recruited him there. As the highest-drafted non-quarterback in 2015, Fowler’s expectations were sky high as he came to Jacksonville. However, a torn ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp ended his rookie year before it ever got started, and Fowler’s career was never the same.
Fowler played adequately for the Jaguars, though he was never able to live up to the standards of being the third overall pick. Jacksonville traded Fowler to the Rams during the 2018 season, and that’s when things took a positive turn for the edge rusher.
With Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh already fixtures of the Rams defense, and Samson Ebukam and Cory Littleton serving as rotational pieces as well, Fowler was no longer asked to be a primary edge rusher like he was in Jacksonville. It took time for Fowler to learn a new scheme, but he exploded in the 2019 season with 11.5 sacks and 35 pressures. Fowler also finished ninth among all EDGEs in the NFL in pass rush win rate.
That enabled Fowler to sign a lucrative deal with the Falcons, reuniting him with Quinn. His former college defensive coordinator would be fired a month into the season, though, and Fowler’s numbers never reached his gaudy 2019 season. In two years in Atlanta, playing for three different head coaches and two different coordinators, Fowler amassed just 7.5 total sacks but he also totaled 59 pressures.
Therein lies the reason for optimism: Fowler has become consistent in generating pressure the last three years. His 35 pressures in 2019 and 23 pressures in 2020 were both the second-most on his team, while his 36 pressures in 2021 were tied for the team lead. For context, Gregory was second on the Cowboys last year with 29 pressures and they’ve had just three players in the last four seasons top 30 pressures.
The important thing to note when looking at these last three years for Fowler is that he hasn’t been the team’s top pass rushing presence in any of those years. With the Rams, Donald was the obvious priority for any offensive line while the Falcons had Grady Jarrett, who is arguably the best interior defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald. In each of these three seasons, Fowler thrived as a secondary rusher who received less attention in executing his pass rush plan.
In Dallas, Fowler is likely going to end up being the third best pass rushing presence, barring an exceptional rookie season from Williams or a huge jump from the likes of Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, or Chauncey Golston. DeMarcus Lawrence was a dominant force when he returned from injury last season, and has led the team in pressures in two of the three years prior.
Then there is Micah Parsons, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year who tied with Donald for second-most votes for Defensive Player of the Year. His mind-boggling rookie year was made all the more impressive by the fact that Parsons had less true pass rush reps than Donald, Lawrence, T.J. Watt or just about any other premier edge rusher. That forces offenses to treat him like a pass rusher on every play in the pre-snap, which takes even more attention away from someone like Fowler.
If the offense is focusing so much on stopping the likes of Lawrence and Parsons, that will open up plenty of opportunities for Fowler to go to work. Given his recent history of thriving in exactly that kind of role, and his history with mad scientist Quinn, it’s entirely possible that Fowler ends up having a very big year.