JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Dante Fowler Jr. took a step right, quickly cut back inside offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and found himself on a collision course with the quarterback.
It surely would have been a sack.
More importantly for Fowler and the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was a clear sign that the speedy defensive end is back.
Fowler practiced Monday for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during rookie minicamp last year. He showed glimpses of being the dominant pass-rusher the Jaguars thought they were getting when they drafted him with the third overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft. None was more telling than the move he put on a fellow top-five pick.
“He’s quick,” said Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft. “I didn’t go against him a lot, but he’s quick. He got a good inside move.”
It’s something the Jaguars hope to see a lot of in 2016.
After parting ways with defensive end Chris Clemons and Andre Branch and failing to land Olivier Vernon and Robert Ayers in free agency, the Jaguars are counting on Fowler to be a three-down player and a disruptive force in his first season on the field. He got off to a good start in the first of the team’s 10 organized team activities.
And his knee held up just fine more than a year after reconstructive surgery.
“It felt good, you know, being able to make it through a practice and not have everybody all worried and scared and stuff like that,” Fowler said. “It just felt good to finally be back, especially with my recovery. … Just really antsy to go out there and just play again and be out there and have fun and be around my teammates and coaches.”
Fowler was on the field about an hour last May when his left knee buckled during an 11-on-11 passing drill. He had reconstructive surgery a few days later and spent the better part of the season rehabbing and watching from the sideline. He attended meetings and traveled for every road game, remaining as much a part of the team as any injured player could.
But he was counting down the days until getting back on the field. He even struggled to sleep the night before.
“That’s crazy. I actually did have trouble. I found myself waking up,” he said. “I was just antsy and ready to get out here.”
Aside from the hefty, camouflage brace on his left knee, there was nothing to indicate Fowler was recovering from a knee injury. The Jaguars are planning to take it slow with him, potentially giving him days off throughout OTAs and training camp, but have been pleased with his progress.
“I thought Dante looked really good,” coach Gus Bradley said. “Still have some work to do and he has a little bit of rustiness. We’re holding him back a little bit. He’s not getting the same reps as everybody else. We just want to see how he comes along, how he handles it. But attitude and work ethic, man, unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Fowler did have one hiccup recently.
A video surfaced in February that showed him refereeing a fight between his girlfriend and the mother of his child. The NFL said the video included “disturbing images” and vowed to review the matter.
Fowler apologized at the time and expressed regret again Monday, adding that he doesn’t anticipate any league punishment.
“I don’t want guys to think that I just want women to fight each other,” he said. “I love women and I love my mom. I’m actually a mother’s guy, very sweet-hearted guy. I don’t want any women or anybody to get a certain type of perception of me and things like that. It was totally not like that. I apologized for the situation.”
Without Fowler, the Jaguars managed just 36 sacks in 2015. The team’s inability to get to opposing quarterbacks was a main reason the defense ranked near the bottom of the league in points allowed and getting off the field on third downs.
Fowler’s return is a key part of Jacksonville’s defensive rebuilding project, which includes six draft picks and more than $125 million in free agency.
“We have a certain mindset this year and that’s to get to the quarterback and be aggressive and nasty, and that’s how we’re going to be,” Fowler said.