Fowler key to Jaguars' defensive makeover
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler has been getting the best of, maybe even embarrassing, offensive linemen for a week now.
There was a nasty spin move against Jermey Parnell, a powerful bull rush against Josh Wells and a freakish first step against Luke Joeckel.
Throw in the first real hit of training camp — his thudding takedown of running back Jonas Gray last week — and Fowler's play has been among the most notable story lines during Jacksonville's training camp so far.
And he's just getting started.
"I've still got to get my explosiveness back," said Fowler, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee 15 months ago. "I feel faster, so I can only imagine how it's going to be when everything comes back. I still have work to put in. ... I'm not saying I'm 80 percent. I'm there, but I just know where I can be."
Fowler's progress is a positive sign for Jacksonville's revamped defense, which is trying to get several new players to jell in camp.
The Jaguars spent more than $120 million in free agency on defensive starters Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson, got Fowler and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks (triceps) back from injury and used their first four draft picks on that side of the ball.
Now, they have one of the NFL's highest-paid defenses and are counting on an immediate return on the investment.
Fowler could be the key.
Although the third overall pick in the 2015 draft is still wearing a knee brace and adapting to the speed of the NFL game, he's provided as many oohs and ahs as anyone in Jacksonville's camp.
"We love the energy and the effort that he plays with," new defensive coordinator Todd Wash said.
"We're not limiting him at all right now. He goes out and he's physical on stuff. We just have to get him to slow down and play within himself. He tries to do too much at times. He is a little bit of a bull in a china closet at times."
Fowler's passion and persistence are evident on the field, and he's hardly the only defender making a difference.
Jackson, a defensive tackle, has looked worthy of the six-year, $85.5 million contract he signed in March. Gipson, a free safety, has seemingly solidified a shaky secondary.
And cornerback Jalen Ramsey (first round), linebacker Myles Jack (second), defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (third) and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (fourth) all look as if they could be significant contributors as rookies.
Outside linebacker Tyrone Holmes of Eagle Point was also a sixth-round selection out of Montana by the Jaguars.
"I think we're seeing some flashes along the way," Wash said. "We have to have more consistency. We play really well in some spurts and then all of a sudden we have a couple bad things go on.
"Consistency is the big thing. I see the players understanding how detailed it is. Exactly what we want from them and they're executing that. It's just a consistency part we have to keep improving on."
The Jaguars ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category in 2015 and really struggled to get steady pressure on quarterbacks and get off the field on third down.
It cost defensive coordinator Bob Babich his job and prompted general manager Dave Caldwell to spend more money on defense in free agency.
Now, the Jaguars have $109.5 million committed to defensive players this season — the second-most in the league behind the New York Giants.
That kind of expenditure creates lofty expectations.
"We have to go out there and lay down the law and let offenses know that this is how it's going to go today," Jackson said.
"We want to be out there smacking people around, 'See ball, hit ball,' and hit hard. We want to be nasty. We want everybody going out there 100 mph and hitting people and getting up and patting each other on the butt and then doing it again."
It's one thing to talk about it, another to do it repeatedly.
Fowler, though, is setting the example.
"Everybody's going to have a tone-setter," he said. "I'm not a very vocal leader, but I like to lead by example by showing my play on the field and how to play. Hopefully they can follow it and like it, and we'll eventually come along."