Should the Falcons consider Dante Fowler in free agency?

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Back in 2015, the Falcons were in a very similar position to the one they are in now — coming off a season highlighted by underachievement and in desperate need for pass rushers. They wound up taking Vic Beasley with the 8th overall pick, who they just announced will not be returning in 2020. But in that draft, they were also very interested in Dante Fowler Jr. out of Florida.

He ended up going third overall to the Jaguars, and the Falcons did not deem him worth trading up at least five spots for, and they were right. Beasley had ten more sacks than Fowler over their first five seasons (although Fowler missed a whole year due to a torn ACL). But after a monster 2019, Fowler is a much hotter commodity than Beasley entering this offseason, and apparently, the Falcons are his ideal landing spot, according to Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network:

“I’m told Fowler wants to play in Atlanta for the Falcons. It’s going to cost a pretty penny, but if the Falcons offer Fowler a competitive offer I think he ends up in Atlanta.”

Fowler’s season-ending injury as a rookie was only the beginning of an underwhelming career in Jacksonville. He only racked up four sacks in his second year, but he did double that total in 2017. However, he wasn’t able to sustain that success in 2018, and the Jaguars ended up trading him to Los Angeles for a 2019 third-round selection and a 2020 fifth-round pick. Fowler only had four combined sacks that season. Still, the Rams signed him to a one-year, $12 million “prove-it” contract last offseason, hoping he could fulfill that potential the Jags saw when they drafted him third overall, and that’s exactly what he did.

2019 was Fowler’s breakout campaign in all facets of the game. He crushed his previous career-high in tackles (32) with 58, demolished his career-high in tackles for loss (7) with 16, and eviscerated his career-high in sacks (8.0) with 11.5. Considering the Falcons leading pass rusher only had eight sacks last season, and he’s on his way out the door in free agency, there’s no questioning Fowler will be a person of interest this offseason, especially since Quinn helped recruit him back when he was the defensive line coach at Florida. However, given the Falcons cap restraints and what Fowler will cost this offseason, I’m not sure he’s the best option for Atlanta to target in free agency.

Right now, the Falcons are only a few million under the projected salary cap for next season. But depending on the cuts and restructures they make over the next couple of months, that number could be around $30 to $40 million, and ten of that may be needed to bring back Austin Hooper, who should be a top priority this offseason. That would leave Atlanta with little money to spend on free agents, and Dante Fowler might take up most of that by himself.

Spotrac projects Fowler’s value at four years, 42 million dollars. While I believe that to be a fair projection because he’s only put up one season of elite production, this is a what have you done for me lately world we live in. And most recently, Fowler looked like a Pro-Bowler caliber pass rusher — one that is worthy of a contract in the $15-20 million AAV range. So considering how sack specialists are typically overvalued in free agency, I don’t see a scenario where Fowler isn’t making at least $50 million over four years this offseason, which isn’t something the Falcons can afford. And truthfully, they might be dodging a bullet.

Like Beasley, Fowler only had one year of above-average production. Other than that, he’s been an underachiever at every turn. There’s the possibility that last year was a sign of things to come, but there’s also the possibility that Fowler was feasting because he was a part of an elite group of pass rushers and could be in for some pretty severe regression, depending on where he lands in free agency. If the Falcons took a gamble on him, they might have another Vic Beasley situation on their hands, and that’s not something they can afford to risk.

Atlanta has too many needs this offseason to invest that kind of money in just one player, especially one that isn’t a lock for double-digit sacks every season. Thomas Dimitroff and company have to approach this offseason with caution, making sure every penny is well spent, or they won’t be returning to the playoffs anytime soon.

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