Rams LB Dante Fowler might not be a short-term rental

CHICAGO – It started as a rental, but perhaps it will end up being a lease and a purchase.

Dante Fowler arrived in the Rams’ locker room with fairly low expectations, the product of on-field underachievement and off-field issues. In a best-case scenario, the end-turned-linebacker would boost the Rams’ relatively tame outside pass rush, then leave via free agency after the season.

It might be time to rethink that. Fowler, after an understandably slow start, has blossomed into an impact player for the Rams over the past three weeks. As the Rams face another big game, Sunday at Chicago, it might be time to ask whether Fowler could turn into a long-term answer at the position.

“I think everybody can see it,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “He’s an outside rush threat, and more of a threat than what we had. I think that’s showing up. He gives you an opportunity to not only rush on third down but on first and second downs, with that presence as an outside rusher. That has helped.”

The Rams took a low risk in October on Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft, when they traded two mid-round draft picks to Jacksonville for him. The Jaguars, apparently having seen enough, already had decided not to pick up Fowler’s 2019 contract option and allow him to walk away as a free agent.

Fowler, who had only two sacks and 10 tackles in nine games with the Jaguars, has two sacks and 12 tackles in his past three games with the Rams. He has taken over for Matt Longacre as the starting linebacker opposite Samson Ebukam, and he’s coming off his most complete game of the season.

“You just learn more,” Fowler said, “and you’re able to watch film on yourself. You just get a better feel and you’re able to play faster, and Coach Phillips does a really good job of making things pretty easy, so you can just go out there and play your assignment and play it fast.”

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In last week’s victory over Detroit, Fowler played 62 of the Rams’ 72 defensive snaps and recorded three tackles for loss. Besides the sack, Fowler recorded two tackles inside the Rams’ red zone.

That’s notable. The Rams acquired Fowler largely because of his pass-rushing skills, but from the day he arrived, Fowler talked about wanting to be a three-down player. That would mean not just zeroing in on opposing quarterbacks, but also making tackles in the backfield and in the open field. Increasingly, Fowler is showing that ability.

“Definitely I take a lot of pride in that,” Fowler said. “I want to show a lot of people. I know people look at me as a pass rusher, but I want them to look at me as an every-down player, a complete player. I feel like last Sunday was definitely a big stepping stone for that, but everything is about consistency.”

Some around the league probably questioned whether it would be possible. Fowler’s time in Jacksonville was less than impressive. In 2 1/2 seasons, he started only one game, even though he showed some potential with eight sacks in 2017 in a backup role. Fowler probably didn’t help himself with off-field issues, which included a 2017 arrest for battery, a charge to which Fowler eventually pleaded no contest.

Since joining the Rams, Fowler has talked often about his appreciation for a fresh start. It’s only been slightly more than a month, but thus far, Fowler has been nothing but a positive, smiling face in the Rams’ locker room. It doesn’t hurt that he’s winning and that his former team is 4-8 and out of playoff contention.

“It’s a blessing just to be part of a special season with this team,” Fowler said. “I just appreciate that (General Manager) Les (Snead) and everybody else in the front office was able to make things work and let me come in and be a part of something special. I’m just cherishing all these moments.”

The question is whether they will last. The Rams have contract decisions to make on defense after this season, most notably involving two pending free agents – defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who have a combined salary-cap hit of more than $25 million this season.

The Rams could have some financial flexibility on defense – even as Aaron Donald’s large contract extension kicks in – but even if they wanted to pursue a new deal with Fowler, it could be tough to gauge.

Fowler had a base salary of less than $4 million this season, and the Jaguars declined an option that would have paid him approximately $14 million in 2019. It’s tough to find a comparable player for Fowler, a high draft pick who, at best, will have had only half a season as a productive NFL starter.

One option, one the Rams might well pursue, is to use their franchise tag. Fowler likely would be designated as a defensive end, which in 2018 included a one-year contract worth $17.1 million. Fowler brought up the franchise-tag possibility on his own this week, and said he “wouldn’t mind” it.

“Honestly, I’m just so into this season, and this season is so special right now, that I’m just enjoying it,” Fowler said. “I know that it’s in the back of my head and I know I could be a free agent, but a lot of things can happen.”

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