GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A sweltering pro day inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium served as the last major mile-marker for evaluators on the road to Chicago, before the meetings and visits that engulf the final days ahead of the NFL draft.
And so it was an appropriate setting for the star of this show to answer the question all the guys clad in polos and ballcaps and wielding stopwatches have been asking for the last 12 months: Who is the best player in this year's class?
"Me," said Florida edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr., glowing in the aftermath of Florida's pro day -- still four months away from being able to take his first legal drink. "I'm the best player in the draft. Why I'd say that, it's because of how complete I am out there. There are a lot of guys, a lot of good people in this draft. But as far as me being able to do the whole thing? I can do it all."
Fowler may be right. There are a number of other guys who can make a similar claim. And that might best typify the top of this year's class.
Jameis Winston is a projection off the field, while Marcus Mariota is one on it. There's little consensus as to the order in which a bumper crop of receivers will come off the board; ditto for the edge rushers and the offensive linemen. It's not as good a class, top to bottom, as last year's, but it's better than the 2013 group.
While that might provide an opening for Fowler, it's not really the reason he feels the way he does. He probably would've said the same thing last year or the year before, and you don't have to look far to see where he got that from.
"I think if it wasn't for the Bucs taking Jameis Winston, (Fowler would) be the No. 1 player taken," said Fowler's dad, Dante Sr. "That's just my opinion. Everyone has their own opinion; I'm biased, and Jameis is a good kid, and we know his parents. But if it wasn't for them needing a quarterback, (Dante Jr. would) be the No. 1 pick."
So here are the numbers. Fowler is 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds, and he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, making the Gator junior faster than Khalil Mack was in Indy last year, even though Fowler ran 10 pounds heavier. On the field, he played as a true freshman and was All-SEC the two years to follow.
There's a lot to like, and that's largely because goals were always set high for the guy in question.
That part of his story began in the backyard. Dante Sr. bought blocking dummies and pads and helmets from Play It Again Sports and applied what he knew from playing as a kid. Once his sons (including Dante Jr.'s younger siblings Donterio and CamRon) showed they shared their dad's passion, the temperature rose.
"This is what he's wanted to do every day since he was small," said Dante Sr. "I told him, 'You wanna play the game, you're gonna play the game right.' He eats, sleeps and dreams football. His priorities are backwards, you know? Football first, school second. All he wanted to do was play football. Every single day, he wanted to play football."
Things did boil over at times, when Dante's mother, Lanora -- the family conscience -- had to step in and take football away for a day or two. "We had our share of, 'No ESPN, no talking football, if you get that upset,' " she said. But there was a purpose to what Dante Sr. was doing. And last fall, all that work started to crystallize for her, as she started to grasp that the dream was becoming reality.
"I never thought we'd be talking the first few picks," she explained. "Dad did. Dad wanted him to go No. 1."
It's easy to see that the younger Fowler is not programmed to see it any other way.
And that's why, with all this right in front of him, it's not time to back down. He knows that a quarterback's probably going first. But on Friday, he'll be in Tampa, trying to convince the Bucs to go the other direction with the No. 1 overall pick.
"It's really competitive," Fowler said. "And it's competitive with Jameis. We played together in the Under Armour game. We've been competing with each other ever since we were in high school. So to see this now, see good things happening, is good. The competitive edge, me and Leonard (Williams) played in that same game, and just to see who's gonna be the No. 1 and the No. 2 guy taken off the board, we all want to know from the coaches who's the best in their eyes."
We know what Fowler thinks. He doesn't mind flashing bravado like he does his ability. His lucky workout watch gleams gold, and his plan is "to do what Michael Strahan is doing" after he's done playing. Strahan, of course, has gone on to enjoy a successful media career following his days as a Hall of Fame pass rusher with the Giants.
What is the logic behind Fowler's big dream? Putting together a great NFL tenure will open doors outside of football for the telecommunications major.
And, as you might've figured, Fowler sees completing the first part of the equation as a pretty good bet.