Over the past five years, the Los Angeles Rams have struggled to create pressure off of the edge. While Robert Quinn was a threat early in his career, he was never the same player after going through back surgery following the 2015-16 season.
The Rams traded Quinn after 2017 to unload his contract and start over at the position. However, despite having Aaron Donald nearly break the sack record in 2018 and win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for a second-consecutive season, the Rams struggled to create pressure off of the edge.
For an interior defensive lineman, Donald commands double-teams at an astounding rate. According to a 2018 stat, Donald was getting double-teamed on 70% of snaps. However, even with Donald commanding the attention of multiple blockers, second-year player Samson Ebukam led the team with just three sacks off of the edge and the team’s edge rushers combined for six sacks on the season. For reference, even a damaged Robert Quinn had 8.5 sacks in 2017.
The Rams knew this was an issue and knew they had to make a move. In the middle of the season, general manager Les Snead traded for former No. 3 overall pick, Dante Fowler.
Coming to Los Angeles and a new defensive scheme in the middle of the season is never easy, and with Fowler, it showed. In his first eight games with the Rams, he recorded just two sacks. However, his 23 pressures according to Pro Football Focus in eight weeks already ranked third on the team for the entire season.
It wasn’t until the NFC Championship game that the trade for Fowler seemed to pay off. The New Orleans Saints received the ball first in overtime. On the first pass play of the extra-period, Folwer hit Drew Brees to force an errant pass that was intercepted by safety John Johnson III.
The Rams went on to lose the Super Bowl, but Fowler at least made a case to be brought back for a second season in Wade Phillips’ defense.
That’s precisely what happened.
The Rams didn’t apply the franchise tag to Fowler, but they didn’t sign him to a long-term deal either. The two sides agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $14M. While the Rams were mildly criticized for the move as Fowler had proven to be a draft bust up to that point in his career, it was a move that the team needed to make.
Fowler was a low-risk trade, and at just 25-years old, he was a low-risk signing. If the former No. 3 overall pick didn’t work out in year two with Phillips; it’s not as if the Rams were strapped in with him long term. If he did work out, then the Rams got one of the league’s high potential, young pass-rushers for a season.
Without the draft capital to select one of the premier edge rushers in a deep 2019 class and plenty of other needs to fill, bringing back Fowler was almost a must.
There is still plenty of season to go, but through two weeks it’s hard to say that bringing Fowler back wasn’t the right move. With a full offseason under Phillips, Fowler is on pace for a career year and has been not only the team’s most productive pass rusher but one of the most productive in the league as well.
Fowler leads the Rams with 11 pressures, which is nearly twice as much as the next defensive player on the team. His 8 hurries and 2 sacks also are team-highs. Fowler’s 2 sacks can be highly credited to Aaron Donald, but as mentioned earlier, the Rams didn’t have a player last season that took advantage of the attention that Donald receives.
The Rams edge rusher also ranks fourth in the NFL with those 11 pressures. He’s one of just 12 edge rushers to tally double-digit pressures this season and has also recorded the third most hurries in the league.
If Fowler keeps up his current pace, he should easily surpass his 2017 season with the Jaguars in which he recorded eight sacks and 46 total pressures. If that happens, it would be hard for the Rams not to consider bringing Fowler back on a long-term deal after the season.
The Rams struggled last year when it came to bringing consistent pressure off of the edge. That’s something that shouldn’t be difficult when a team has a force like Donald inside.
The Rams have finally found that presence off of the edge in Fowler. While Donald may not get up to 20 sacks again this season, he and Fowler could become one of the most-feared inside-outside pass-rushing threats in the league.
It’s only been two weeks, but the early return from Fowler has shown that bringing him back was the right move and the Rams defense could reap the long-term benefits because of it.