Rams' Dante Fowler gets prove-it deal and fresh start

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Dante Fowler Jr.’s voice began to quiver as the Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker rattled through a roller coaster of events that have spanned his four-year career.

There were some highlights, such as the eight sacks he produced when the Jacksonville Jaguars advanced to the AFC Championship Game two years ago. And there were lowlights, like the ACL injury that ended his rookie season before it began and behavior, on and off the field, that resulted in a strained relationship with the Jaguars.

But as Fowler described the uneven start to his young career, a smile slowly grew across his face when he described his new start in L.A.

“Really wasn’t feeling myself until I got here,” he said. “... the coaches put me in a very great position, just like letting me be me, let me be the Dante Fowler that basically got me here.”

That is why Fowler, 24, signed a one-year, prove-it deal, worth up to $12 million, with the Rams ahead of free agency in March instead of testing the market as an unrestricted free agent.

“I knew from like the first few weeks, really that first month when I was here, that this was a perfect fit for me, a perfect team for me,” he said.

Last season, in the midst of an 8-0 start and with an eye on a deep playoff run, the Rams identified the need for a pass-rusher. Ahead of the trade deadline, they sent third- and fifth-round draft picks to the Jaguars in exchange for Fowler, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Five days after he was acquired, the Rams inserted Fowler against the New Orleans Saints. Two weeks later, he started against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Fowler’s contributions grew steadily and peaked in the NFC Championship Game when he pressured Saints quarterback Drew Brees into an errant pass that safety John Johnson III intercepted. The play set up a game-winning field goal and sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

“What he was able to do coming in in the middle of the year and being able to contribute the way that he did really says a lot about how quickly he was able to pick things up,” coach Sean McVay said.

In eight games, Fowler had two sacks and four tackles for losses. He was embraced by teammates, and by the Rams’ front office.

“He made plays for us along the way,” general manager Les Snead said. “From the beginning, we wanted Dante to be back.”

But now it’s up to Fowler, who has 16 sacks, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in three seasons, to prove he can maintain his poise off the field and develop into a star in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.

“I’m just going to go out there and bust my tail and try to be the best player I can be on and off the field so I can try to figure out a way to stay here,” Fowler said.

Fowler’s offseason program attendance this spring was sporadic. He missed a portion of the voluntary workouts to help care for his young children in Florida, he said. McVay noted that the workouts were voluntary, and commended Fowler’s communication about his situation.

However, with the workouts Fowler has attended, teammates noticed his presence.

“He’s all about effort and one thing that’s hard to find in this league are guys who give consistent effort,” new teammate Clay Matthews said. “In fact, he’s on the side where you need to back him down a little bit because he’s full-go all the time, and that’s rare to find…

“I know he’s going into year five, and obviously had the ACL injury and has been through some challenges throughout his career, but I think once he kind of harnesses that and is around some guys, like myself, as well as an [Aaron Donald], [Michael Brockers] as well, guys who can kind of focus him in and allow him to play to his potential, and what they’re asking him too, I think he should be able to flourish this year.”

Brockers said that he was “licking his chops” when he learned that Fowler re-signed and that the Rams added Matthews, an All-Pro pass-rusher who played 10 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, in free agency.

“You get two guys who can rush on the edge and are great at it,” Brockers said. “It kind of opens up those one-on-ones for you on the inside.”

The most crucial learning period in Fowler’s short career is expected to occur during training camp in July and August, when for the first time as a Ram he will be fully able to invest in Phillips’ system and learn the tendencies of his teammates.

“You can get a little more intricate with some of the details, some of the nuances, really where you’re starting the right way from a foundational teaching standpoint,” McVay said. “And I think that’s only going to help Dante play faster, play more decisive.”

“It will definitely be awesome, my position coach, coach [Chris] Shula, he’s doing a very good job of getting everything out of me, even with just this time that I’ve been here,” Fowler said. “He’s gotten a lot out of me already so I can only imagine what a full camp would be.”

And after the season, if the Rams were to offer Fowler a long-term extension, there’s no need to imagine what he might do. “I will be signing that paper,” he said, smiling.