The biggest compliment an NFL scout or coach can bestow upon a top prospect is to call him a "football player" in pre-draft meetings.
The term is used to describe someone with the grit, toughness and instincts to excel at the highest level despite lacking some of the blue-chip characteristics that most elite players possess. Some might dismiss such players as overachievers with a knack for playmaking, but old-school coaches believe "football players" are essential building blocks of a championship team.
Thus, my ears perked up when I repeatedly heard several scouts and coaches describe Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. as a "football player" while quizzing them about the 6-foot-3, 261-pound junior during my travels on the pro-day circuit. Coaches in particular raved about the "it" factor that Fowler brings to the table as a versatile playmaker off the edge. Most impressively, the coaches couldn't stop talking about Fowler's violent game and nasty disposition on the field.
Having studied the tape, I agree with the coaches' assessments. Fowler is an instinctive defender with a high football IQ and a natural feel for the game. The ex-Gator attacks blockers off the edge with violent hands, exhibiting adequate strength and power at the point of attack. He swiftly stacks and sheds blockers on runs to his side and works quickly to get in on plays to his side.
As a pass rusher, Fowler displays workmanlike skills getting to the quarterback. Though he lacks an explosive first step, he wins with brute strength and power off the edge. Fowler routinely uses an inside arm-over move to work past offensive tackles on pass-rush attempts; he also uses an effective dip-and-rip maneuver to turn the corner on a speed rush. Although Fowler lacks the first-step quickness to win on sheer speed, his hand skills and violent approach lead to solid production as a rusher. With Fowler capable of rushing from an upright position or a three-point stance, he could develop into an ideal 3-4 outside linebacker/nickel defensive end as a pro.
As for possible concerns about Fowler's game, I would point to his lack of dominant traits as a pass rusher. He doesn't flash the finesse skills to win with a variety of moves off the edge, nor is he quick enough to win on traditional speed rushes. These factors reduce his chances of consistently beating elite blockers at the next level. Fowler must develop a few new moves to become a double-digit sack artist; otherwise, he'll spend the bulk of his career as a sidekick to a dominant rusher.
Looking ahead to Fowler's potential as a pro, I believe he's destined to fill an Ahmad Brooks-like role on an elite defense. He can align as a SAM linebacker on early downs and function as a sub-package defensive end on passing downs. While I don't believe he'll develop into a dynamic edge player as a pro, I can envision him thriving as a complementary guy opposite a legitimate pass rusher. This is not what many would expect from a potential top-five pick; still, Fowler's skill would make him the perfect Robin to a team with a Batman already in place.
Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3 overall pick)
Coach Gus Bradley loves to build his defense around the versatile talents of disruptive defenders along the front line, and Fowler is a violent edge player with the grit, toughness, instincts and positional flexibility to fill multiple roles as a hybrid defender in the Jaguars' lineup. He can align as a standup defender on early downs, then shift to nickel defensive end on passing downs, to take advantage of his power-based rush skills. Given Jacksonville's success rushing the passer in 2014 (the Jags finished tied for sixth with 45 sacks), the addition of Fowler could help the squad take another step toward respectability.
Washington Redskins (No. 5)
The loss of Brian Orakpo -- who joined the Tennessee Titans as a free agent -- leaves the Redskins with a huge void on the edge. While Ryan Kerrigan can fill the primary role as the Redskins' designated pass rusher, adding Fowler would give the team a powerful edge defender to use as a complementary player on the back side. The former Gator standout is a skilled specialist in hand-to-hand combat, with outstanding instincts, anticipation and awareness. Most importantly, Fowler is a rugged defender with experience rushing the passer and dropping into coverage as a hybrid defender. The Redskins are looking for an edge player capable of juggling multiple roles at the line of scrimmage, and Fowler could be the guy new general manager Scot McCloughan targets on draft day.
New York Jets (No. 6)
New coach Todd Bowles desperately needs a young, athletic edge defender in the lineup; adding such a player would complete the overhaul that will make the Jets' defense one of the premier units in the NFL. Fowler is a rugged defender with the size, strength and physicality to hold the point against the run. He also poses a legitimate threat as a hard-nosed edge rusher with a violent game. While he needs to refine his technique to become a double-digit sack artist as a pro, he would be the perfect complementary rusher in Bowles' scheme, serving as a disruptive defender capable of attacking from a stand-up position or a three-point stance off the edge. Fowler is also experienced at playing multiple roles along the front line, meaning he could thrive as the designated playmaker in Bowles' exotic sub-package fronts. Entering this offseason, the Jets needed to upgrade their pass defense with better cover corners (see: free-agent additions Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie) and better pass-rushing options. Fowler would be a sensible selection for Gang Green at the top of the draft.
Chicago Bears (No. 7)
New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio -- hired to restore the Bears' defensive reputation -- specializes in putting young defenders in position to succeed, and he could view Fowler as the ideal complementary rusher to enhance Jared Allen's effectiveness in 2015. Given that free-agent addition Pernell McPhee is also in place to create chaos off the edge, the ex-Gator would get the opportunity to learn behind a pair of veterans before taking on a more significant role in his second year, potentially as Allen's replacement. Fangio, who used a similar plan to help Aldon Smith become a disruptive force as a rookie in San Francisco, could rely on a familiar script to get Fowler to thrive as a designated rusher. Meanwhile, the fact that new coach John Fox has targeted pass-rush specialists with his first draft pick at each of his previous stops (see: Julius Peppers in Carolina in 2002 and Von Miller in Denver in 2011) means Fowler is likely on the Bears' radar as a potential key cog in the team's defensive reboot.
Atlanta Falcons (No. 8)
Dan Quinn will bring tremendous energy and passion to Atlanta, but he must add some playmakers to the Falcons' front line if he wants to build the championship-caliber defense needed to overtake the top teams in the NFC South. Fowler certainly possesses the grit, toughness and swagger that Quinn covets in defenders. Most importantly, he is a disruptive player at the point of attack, with the rush skills and instincts to create chaos off the edge as a hybrid playmaker in an ultra-aggressive scheme. Considering Quinn's familiarity with Fowler's game from their time together at Florida (Quinn recruited Fowler to Florida as the Gators' defensive coordinator), the Falcons' new head coach could make the Gator product a key piece of his defensive makeover in Atlanta.