By Matt Waldman
I'm a big fan of Stephen White's draft profiles. The former NFL defensive end-turned-blogger has a writing voice that transports me to a corner booth at a late-night Korean barbecue joint where, over the sizzle of pork belly, beef brisket, and kimchi on the iron-cast lid, we're just a couple of buds downing beers and trading fours on rookie prospects.
The prospect of drafting Fowler in the top 10, let alone the top 5, would have me scared shitless if I were running a team this year. Then again, choosing to not pick him would also have me scared shitless… Potential is such a funny thing. As one of my former teammates so eloquently put it back in the day, potential really just means you haven't done shit yet… [Fowler] was fun as hell to watch in college, no doubt, but the NFL is a different animal. I'm imagining a team considering drafting Fowler, who only had 5.5 sacks before the bowl game by the way, and their GM going to Sam's Club to stock up on Tums. Way too many unknowns, but how can you afford to pass on him? I'm just glad I don't actually have to face that decision. Have fun with that!
Entertaining the last question of White's article sounds like a fun challenge -- especially as an armchair general manager without an ounce of accountability for my answer. Instead of giving another breakdown of a player that comes across as if I'm doing this work in a vacuum, this week I'm using White's article as the launching point for a conversation.
Stephen, I'd prefer to have this talk with you at a back booth over beers and barbecue, but the Internet will have to do. I'll admit this upfront though: I know I'm taking the losing side of this argument, but it's worth the effort.
'Fowler is just a good football player period'
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Fowler is one hell of an athlete. You're dead-on to tout that this 6-foot-3, 261-pound man ran a 4.6-second 40 "with all the lights and cameras focused on him," at the combine. Listen to Kenny Bell describe the combine with its long, crammed days, late nights, and early mornings, and you'll realize that Indy is the least workout-friendly environment of the pre-draft events. No doubt that Fowler's 40 time and closing speed on the field should induce guffawing.
However, I'd like to think you understated your next point. I doubt you meant to, but you say that "Fowler is just a good football player, period," and then you spend half of the article discussing his problems.
I'm with you on the fact that it's easy to get tied in knots over a prospect like Fowler, but sometimes we can overcomplicate the issue. A "good football player," to my eyes, is a smart, intuitive prospect who appears comfortable in multiple settings on the field. This is a point I'd use to tie the article together at the end. And of course I would, I'm taking the optimist track on Fowler in this conversation.
You say that Fowler "never looked anything but confident" as a pass-rushing end on either side of the line; as a stand-up lineman on a zone drop; and as a blitzer of A-gaps. This is a big deal. Players who fail to come close to their potential often either lack an intuitive feel for the game, or have one dominant athletic skill that a college team can exploit with its scheme, making them successful by doing that one thing really well. Either way, the NFL exposes them.
Your first video illustration is indicative of a college star who can bully with his athleticism, but may experience a rude awakening in the NFL. Fowler reads the quarterback, beats the edge blocker, and finishes strong.
Accuse me all you want of reading too much into this play, but I think the difference between Fowler and the college bully on this play is what makes Fowler a good football player and not just a good athlete.
A quick tangent -- if you want a bully, Fowler can be that, too. Check out this crazy hit on the pulling guard in the East Carolina game.
That's what Fowler means when he says he uses his hands with bad intentions. As my friend Jene Bramel points out, Fowler has great closing speed, but he wasn't quick enough laterally to make the wrap of the running back. I think my buddy Jene is nitpicking (as he tends to do with the better prospects) here. He loved the hit, but felt that Fowler had 3 or 4 yards to recover and didn't show the requisite lateral agility or explosiveness to get a hand on the back.
I don't know about you, but I think if Fowler delivers a solid hit rather than loading up with the knockout blow, he makes this play on the back. I think the agility is there, but the effort on the pulling block was too much.
Back to the play where Fowler gets the sack: he might not know enough of the techniques that will make him a consistent force off the edge in the NFL, but I appreciate Fowler's decision to cut off the drop and attack the quarterback. I love the head fake to set up the move inside. Victor Beasley uses a little of that in his game off the edge, but Fowler is improvising this move well into the progression of the play and it's not as pre-programmed as Beasley's effort.
Fowler's head fake is a far more dramatic and effective movement, and he also layers the head fake with precise and violent hands. When a player can summon both agility and power on an improvised play I'm much closer to being sold on him, especially when there are signs that the prospect has the physical capability and feel for the techniques that he needs to learn.
It's not a traditional edge rush, but watch Fowler turn that corner to finish off quarterback Shane Carden. The angle Fowler takes to get his hands on the quarterback is not much different than bending the edge. As Bramel noted in a recent show we did on Bud Dupree, the flexibility to turn the edge is often in the ankles (and I see you, Alen Dumonjic). Fowler displays this flexibility, closing burst, and excellent change of direction while playing on his toes.
Stephen, I don't even know why I'm making an argument with his play. You already said you've seen him turn the corner a handful of times. The real issue you have is whether this small of a sample size is trustworthy. I think the answer is yes. Yes, you should trust a handful of plays out of five games..
I have often trusted the right handful of plays from prospects for 10 years now. As long as there aren't plays that counteract the ones I'm trusting or the context of the play is completely skewed, I'm rolling with that handful. Especially when a prospect is getting stretched thin at other positions and his sample size is small.
Randall Cobb played multiple positions at Kentucky, but the handful of plays I saw him make as a route-runner and pass-catcher in the intermediate and vertical game told me all I needed to know about his development curve as an NFL receiver. I rated Cobb higher than most (No. 3 at his position).
On the other end of the spectrum, I fixated on a few plays of Blaine Gabbert from his sophomore year versus Nevada. I ignored the proper context that pocket presence is partly an emotional state that can get worse as a quarterback's career progresses even as he acquires more physical/technical movement and awareness to maneuver in the pocket.
So hell yeah, I'm rolling with a strong handful of plays. Especially with edge rushers who can go long stretches of reps without earning an opportunity in an aspect of the game that you're trying to see. Pass rushers might be the most frustrating position for me to study for this reason, and the fact that more than any other position they can appear significantly different from game to game.
Pour me another pint from that pitcher while I put more of that Kalbi beef on the grill and I break it down to you why I'm also sold on Fowler.
Good football players -- regardless of position -- have certain things in common: they read the field, they integrate their athleticism into meaningful movement to affect the outcome of the play, and they don't quit on plays. All three things are mentality-driven; the physical awesomeness beyond the expected baseline is gravy.
Prospects who do all the things you describe but lack Fowler's athleticism are often Jacks of All Trades, Masters of None. Athletes like Fowler who do all of these things you describe are no worse than valuable contributors who have enough skills to wreak havoc as productive role players. I'm confident that Fowler's feel for the game and integration of his athletic skills will be enough to prevent him from becoming a $20 million bum.
Speaking of not quitting on plays, you found one of the best examples I've seen all year for a pass rusher:
The timing of the blitz, the spin move, and (once again) the potential to bend the corner are all on display, and all of it is dwarfed by Fowler refusing to die on the play and finishing one of the harder-to-wrap quarterbacks in the college game. I don't have to tell you that many of the stud athletes-turned-NFL duds you reference run themselves out of plays. They don't display the motor or awareness to remain viable in the pocket if they don't win the edge.
I'll readily agree with you if you come back at me with the point that Cameron Erving (No. 75) should have flopped on Fowler at the start. However, you have to admit that not all NFL offensive linemen do this as often as they should. Here's another display of relentlessness against Alabama.
This is where my worthwhile arguments about Fowler as a slam-dunk early-Day 1 prospect end. Good athleticism and a strong motor are worthwhile traits to tout for a fifth-round defender, but not a top-10 edge man. And I'm having difficulties answering your next question…
'Can Fowler do that?'
I fully realize that you're not saying Fowler isn't a top-10 prospect. Like you, I'm a believer that a top-10 prospect has to be a player were you have few doubts about his transition to the NFL at the position you draft him. It's why your question is a challenge -- especially when the only comparable player to whom you can feel even remotely good about comparing Fowler is Von Miller.
I'm so vexed by this kid that I've tried to think of an NFL player who has been used in a similar fashion in the league as Fowler was used at Florida. The only guy who even remotely fits the bill is Von Miller. Miller is always on the field, but one down he might be lined up off the ball like a 4-3 outside linebacker, on other downs he might be lined up on the line and outside one of the offensive tackles like a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end.
Still, Miller makes his money pass rushing from the outside, not blitzing A gaps whether he does it sometimes or not. And he makes that money as a pass rusher because he has moves on top of moves. There might not be a more diverse pass rusher in the entire NFL than Von Miller ... believe that! That dude will hit an offensive tackle with dent-and-rip speed rush one play, a bull rush the next and finish his ass off with a spin move on third down.
Can Fowler do that?
I'm going to go ahead and say no…for now.
Can I find Fowler showing a variety of moves? Can I find a dent-rip, a bull rush, and a spin off the edge?
Mike Mayock found us some variety with the dip-and-rip, push-pull, and bull rush. However, I can't debate your dismissal of the dip-and-rip as an average move that won't scare NFL tackles. His spin move has excellent power in the hands, but it's not yet tight enough to wreak havoc in the league. It leaves Fowler with a limited supply of refined moves -- most of them capitalizing on raw power or speed that he has in good, but not great supply.
Not Von Miller-like.
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Not Khalil Mack-like.
There's no position in football that appears more impressive when the player is flailing wildly than an edge rusher. It feeds into the ferocity of the role even if the movement isn't accomplishing anything productive. Fowler spends a lot of time flailing. It's something he shares with Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo.
It is at linebacker where Fowler has his best shot to maximize his skills and grow into a productive player.
"I think Fowler should play strongside linebacker (in a 4-3), possibly strong outside linebacker (in a 3-4). Let him piss people off playing the run and then let him rush the passer without worrying about anything else," says Bramel, who loves Fowler's closing speed, but isn't blown away by the defender's first step. "I think he can take on bigger blockers without giving ground and I'd rather have him in space than in a three-point stance on early down. He reminds me of Dont'a Hightower."
I gave it my best, but you're right, Stephen. After seven games I couldn't find the three components of edge play you're seeking to feel good about Fowler as a top-10 prospect. You win the argument.
However, I will leave you with this thought: We're OK with taking quarterbacks who don't show enough to develop into competent starters in the top-10 or -15 range. Relative that perennial foolishness, I don't think Fowler as a top-10 pick compared to Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota is as risky. A bad choice of an edge rusher is a gut punch for a GM, but quarterback? Concrete galoshes.
Matt Waldman authors the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner, the 50-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012-2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.