The 49ers' greatest success over the last few seasons can be traced back directly to constructing a dominant defensive line. When the front four is playing at a high level, the 49ers are near impossible to beat.
This is a proven recipe for success that cannot be ignored, and despite the other areas of need on the roster, I think they need to be aggressive and bring in an edge player via free agency who has significant upside.
Enter Dante Fowler Jr., who is slated to hit the open market in the next month. The name probably rings a bell, as Fowler spent parts of two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before signing with the Atlanta Falcons prior to the 2020 season.
The story of Fowler Jr.’s career production can be summed up fairly easily, in my opinion. He has produced above-average numbers when talented players on a good defense have surrounded him. When he has been tasked with being “the guy” on a less talented unit, he hasn’t been able to match the same level of production he did with a strong supporting cast.
Here are his pass-rushing numbers from a full season when he was with a team that had an objectively strong defense.
2017 with Jacksonville:
2019 with Los Angeles:
Now compare that to his numbers from his two seasons with the Falcons, who had one of the worst defenses in the league during that span
2020 with Atlanta:
2021 with Atlanta:
This is what makes him such a perfect fit for the 49ers. He can come in and join a stacked unit that already has game-changing players in Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Instead of being relied upon to be the primary pass rusher like he was in Atlanta, Fowler Jr. can focus more directly on excelling in a more specialized role.
His athletic profile and pattern of past production make him an ideal candidate for the 9-tech position that is a staple of the Wide-9 defensive front that is regularly employed by the 49ers. It’s very feasible to see a path to Fowler Jr. regularly being put able to exploit the one-on-one opportunities that would likely be put in as a result of the attention opposing offensive lines would have to pay to Bosa and Armstead.
On the field, it’s hard to argue against how well Fowler Jr. meshes in with what the 49ers want to do on defense. The kicker here is he also projects to fit in well with the spending limitations the 49ers will potentially face due to their cap situation and a large number of impending free agents.
Fowler Jr. is coming off of back-to-back relatively average seasons with the Falcons, which likely lessens the demand for teams looking to pay top dollar for his services. He might be in a position where he looks to join a good situation for a season and rebuild some of his value before cashing in next offseason when the cap is projected to spike, and teams will probably spend more.
What better situation is out there than coming to the 49ers? Not only would Fowler Jr. have the benefit of playing alongside a group of studs on the defensive line, but he also would have the chance to work with the best defensive line coach in the league in Kris Kocurek. The best part for the 49ers is they don’t have to sell Fowler Jr. on hypotheticals.
They have a tangible example in this most recent season they can point to as a blueprint for what Fowler Jr. could potentially do with them in 2022. I am, of course, referencing the signing of Arden Key, who joined the 49ers on an extremely team-friendly one-year deal and ended up having an incredibly impressive season.
Key joined the 49ers as a player who had the raw physical gifts but had yet to manifest that into consistent production at the NFL level. After a season’s worth of working with Kocurek and that 49ers defensive line room, Key developed into a vital piece, a role that is likely going to get him a hefty payday this offseason.
It’s hard to see Fowler Jr. signing for the same near-league minimum deal that Key did last year, but a discounted rate on a one-year deal is absolutely in play here. It just makes too much sense. It’s a win for both sides.
The 49ers get the benefit of having a very talented player on the roster, and Fowler Jr. gets a chance to rebuild his value in arguably the best place in the league for a defensive lineman to do so. The question shouldn’t be why they should do this. The real question is, why not?