Dante Fowler doesn’t hold his tongue. That is evident in the way he barks in opponents' faces after completing his signature kick-and-bow sack celebration.
When the newly minted Falcons linebacker addressed Atlanta media via conference call Thursday, it was almost expected he would say something brash. And he did.
Fresh off a career-best 11.5 sacks last season with the Los Angeles Rams, Fowler has another double-digit number in mind for 2020.
“The goal is to break Michael Strahan’s record," Fowler said without hesitation, referring to Strahan’s 22.5 sacks in 2001. “You’ve got to put a lot of work in.
“In order to be the best pass-rusher in the league, I have to put up double digits every year. That’s why I feel like edge rushers be put up on this pedestal, but the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-type league. ... That’s my job and my goal, to be consistent every year, come out with double digits. This [past season] was 11.5? I want to have more than 11.5, 12.5 every year. But the goal is to beat Strahan’s record.”
The Falcons, coach Dan Quinn and new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris would be content with Fowler simply being a disruptive force on a weekly basis. Landing an impact edge rusher capable of moving quarterbacks off the spot was the Falcons' first priority in free agency after they finished 2019 tied for 29th in the NFL with 28 sacks. Too much of the burden fell on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who was a menace on the interior but didn’t get adequate help until Vic Beasley Jr. stepped up with eight sacks in the final eight games.
The need for an impact pass-rusher became more magnified when arguably the best quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, landed with division foe Tampa Bay. The Falcons declined to re-sign Beasley, a former No. 8 overall pick who was the 2016 NFL sack champ (15.5) and signed with the Tennessee Titans. They also missed out on top free-agent target Robert Quinn, who signed with the Chicago Bears.
Fowler was recruited to the University of Florida by Quinn, who was his defensive coordinator with the Gators. And a reunion was in the offing after Fowler signed a three-year, $45 million deal ($29 million guaranteed).
“Just a motor, a motor for the whole 60 minutes,” Fowler said of what he brings to the Falcons. “Rushing the passer is a privilege. In order to do that, you’ve got to be able to stop the run on first and second down. And I take a lot of pride in that, too. I feel like in today’s game, pass-rushers just want to be known for getting sacks. But that’s never been me, and that’s not going to be me. I’m a whole player.”
Fowler, 25, said the connection with Quinn was a factor in signing with the Falcons. When he left college for the 2015 NFL draft, he talked at the scouting combine about how much "love" he had for Quinn. Fowler figured he’d be drafted by the Jaguars or Falcons and ended up in Jacksonville with the third overall selection. But the bond with Quinn remained.
“Everything was genuine. He taught me a lot of things as a man,” Fowler said of Quinn. “Just over that one-year span of me being there with him and he being with me at UF, I went to his house. I met his wife, had Thanksgiving with him before. It was a huge part of me when he left to go to the league to the Seahawks. I almost wanted to transfer because he left.”
Now reunited, Fowler feels rejuvenated, as if he were drafted all over again. Several times he mentioned having “something to prove.” That might start with changing the negative perception surrounding his off-the-field character.
Fowler had some well-documented missteps during his days with Jacksonville. In 2016, he was captured on video allegedly refereeing a fight between his girlfriend and the mother of his child. A few weeks later in Miami Beach, Florida, he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of assault against a police officer and resisting arrest without violence; the charges were later dropped. He was involved in several practice fights during his time with the Jaguars and served a one-week suspension in training camp for after a scuffle with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Fowler also was suspended for the 2018 season opener as a result of pleading no contest to charges of battery, criminal mischief and petit theft stemming from a July 2017 arrest in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.
“As far as off the field, I just feel like some of my issues were super misunderstood,” Fowler said. “Like with the situation with the women, that eventually will get out, the real reason why. I feel like people with that situation, people thought I was reffing a fight with girls. I come from a family, like, my mother, five aunties, I have a sister. I’m around women all the time. For me to just keep getting, for people to just to keep putting that in there along with the video, I refused to just keep having my name slandered like that. So I’m definitely coming out about that soon because I don’t like that.
“I haven’t gotten in any trouble since I got to the NFL. A lot of that stuff just happened from a lot of crazy stuff that people will eventually find out soon. Just dealing with that and understanding that position that I was in, knowing that I had kids that look up to me, knowing that my kids look up to me, always taught me whatever you do, don’t disrespect the family’s name. I take huge pride in that. That’s always been me. I’m a respectful guy. My persona might come off because of how I am super-aggressive and savage on the field. But off the field, I’m just a sweet, big teddy bear, to be honest with you.”
Fowler was traded to the Rams in October 2018 in exchange for third- and fifth-round draft picks after playing his first 39 NFL games with the Jaguars. Fowler didn’t play as a rookie after suffering a left ACL tear in rookie minicamp. When he returned from the injury, he averaged 29 snaps per game with the Jaguars. In 24 games with the Rams, he averaged 51.4 snaps per game.
“Just the situations that I was going in Jacksonville, not playing and stuff, and I felt like that was the reason -- because of how they were viewing me as a person off the field,” Fowler said. “It definitely changed my life around in a lot of ways. When I got to the L.A. Rams, they just gave me an opportunity to basically start over again. I took advantage of that because I didn’t make the most of the opportunity the first time. I said, 'If I ever get it again, I’ll never mess it up again.'"
Fowler's talent as a pass-rusher has never been in doubt. Former quarterback Josh McCown, now an ESPN analyst, got thrown to the ground by Fowler on a strip sack during a 2017 game between the Jaguars and Jets.
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“He’s a good player,” McCown said of Fowler. “When we played him, I still think he was young and figuring things out, so he wasn’t consistent. But as he’s grown and improved, he somewhat reminds me of a Cliff Avril-type player. I see him being that for the [Falcons] defense.”
Former Florida coach Will Muschamp, now the coach at South Carolina, underscored the importance of Fowler getting a chance to play under Quinn again.
“Dante's a pleaser, and he wants everybody to be pleased around him,” Muschamp said. "He's a violent, violent football player. ... I know the type of person Dante is and how he was raised. I know he's back in an environment with Dan, and I'll know he'll flourish.”
Fowler said he has matured as a player. He used to rush with a “street fighter” mentality but now finds himself playing more under control. Having played alongside All-Pro players such as Aaron Donald in Los Angeles and Calais Campbell in Jacksonville has given him a blueprint for how to go about his daily routine.
“It’s my time now, and I’m definitely ready to show you guys the player that I am,” Fowler said. “My mentality coming in here is to be one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Last year was my first year [of sustained success], so I’m just scratching the surface, to be honest with you. ... I’m out here to prove something, and I know my team is out here to prove something as well."