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Comparing Leonard Floyd to Dante Fowler

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Is it really that simple of a one-to-one swap at outside linebacker?

NFL: New York Giants at Chicago Bears Kena Krutsinger-USA TODAY Sports

They aren’t the same size. They don’t have the same athleticism. They’re not the same age. Their statistics and production doesn’t come close to mirroring one another. They’ve seen their careers go in opposite directions.

And yet, many are expecting Leonard Floyd to directly replace Dante Fowler as an outside linebacker and edge rusher for the LA Rams next season because of reasons that as far as I can tell include the following:

  • They were top-10 draft picks
  • They play roughly the same position
  • They were both disappointments with their original teams*
  • They both may have been underrated once they became labeled as “busts”
  • The Rams are counting on it

*This seems like an illogical connection to make as a hopeful one — that being bad somehow means that Floyd will become better just because he’s replacing a player who got better in LA — but it seems to be one I’ve seen going around. Just wanted to note that.

More than anything, Floyd enters Los Angeles hoping that a change of organizations will be what propels him into being an attractive free agent option after this deal runs out, same as it happened for Fowler. I didn’t say change of “scenery” because Floyd’s already had plenty of that:

He has played for two different head coaches, two different defensive coordinators, as well as with Khalil Mack and without Khalil Mack. He’s seen his pass rush opportunities go up every year and his pass rush production go down every year. Nothing has helped Floyd as a pass rusher and now Les Snead is banking $10+ million that Sean McVay and Brandon Staley can be the guides that turn him into more than being a one-dimensional linebacker who is valuable against the run only.

And few coaches in the world should know more than what Staley knows about Floyd’s abilities, as he was coaching outside linebackers for the Bears from 2017-2018, directly impacting his development in the middle two seasons of his career.

Staley is now re-fitting basically every pass rush opportunity around Aaron Donald next season and Floyd has the greatest opportunity to replace the 11.5 sacks and 16 QB hits of Fowler from a season ago. We know that the two have superficial and intangible comparisons to be made, most of which will have zero bearing on their abilities as football players, but how do they compare in physicality and production at both the college and pro levels?

That’s what this article is about, as you know by now.

Size and Athleticism

Dante Fowler Combine:

6’3, 261 lbs, 33.75” arms, 9.5” hands, 4.6 40-yard dash, 32.5” vertical, 9’4” broad jump, 19 reps on the bench, 7.4 3-cone, 4.32 20-yard shuttle

Leonard Floyd Combine:

6’6, 244 lbs, 33.1” arms, 10.1” hands, 4.6 40-yard dash, 39.5” vertical, 10’7” broad jump

First of all, Dante Fowler is a Chevy Colorado:

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

And Leonard Floyd is Dodge Challenger:

Georgia v South Carolina

The fact that Floyd is three inches taller but weighed 15 lbs lighter than Fowler at their respective combines says plenty. Floyd vowed to put on weight without sacrificing speed or health (uh oh) and may weigh over 250 now but they look like vastly different outside linebackers. They ran the same 40-yard dash, but at different sizes we must judge them differently for their efforts. That also contributes to Floyd jumping much higher and further than Fowler did.

They don’t look the same, but did they play the same in college?

College Days

Dante Fowler College Production:

36 games, 14.5 sacks, 33 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles

Final season: 12 games, 8.5 sacks, 15 TFL, 2 FF

Leonard Floyd College Production:

37 games, 17 sacks, 26.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles

Final season: 13 games, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL, 0 FF

One of the main takeaways here is not total production over three years but how the production was spread out for each player. Floyd was consistently the same guy every year for Georgia, even as a freshman, good for 60 tackles, 5-6 sacks, and 9 TFL. He didn’t ever have one really dominant season. Fowler got better each season at Florida, capping it off with 8.5 sacks in the SEC in 2014. The other pass rushers on the SEC leaderboard that year included these notable players, among others:

  • Shane Ray of Missouri well ahead in first at 14.5 sacks
  • Myles Garrett tied for second with 11 sacks
  • Bud Dupree at 9.5
  • Derek Barnett at Preston Smith at 9 sacks
  • Fowler at 8.5
  • Markus Golden at 8 sacks
  • Trey Flowers in a three-way tie for 11th place with 6 sacks, which includes Leonard Floyd

As a pass rusher, Fowler certainly seems to look the part of a developing prospect getting better each year whereas Floyd may have been a more consistent and well-rounded threat coming out of college. It is worth noting at this point that despite Floyd being drafted one year later, he is two years older than Fowler.

Fowler became the third overall pick in 2015, then Floyd became the ninth overall pick in 2016. Because Fowler missed his entire first season, they were both rookies in 2016.

NFL Production

Fowler Rookie Season:

570 snaps, 397 pass rushing snaps, four sacks, 11 QB hits, six TFL, five passes defensed

Floyd Rookie Season:

536 snaps, 267 pass rushing snaps, seven sacks, nine QB hits, six TFL, two passes defensed

After one year on the sidelines, Fowler returned to find Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue were now getting snaps ahead of him, but he was fairly disruptive with his opportunities in Gus Bradley’s 4-3. Floyd looked even more exciting however, getting almost twice as many sacks on 130 fewer pass rushing opportunities. At the time, Floyd was playing in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense with the Chicago Bears, sharing the pass rushing opportunities with players like Akiem Hicks, Willie Young, and Sam Acho.

At PFF, Fowler got a 69.2 run defense grade and a 58.7 pass rushing grade

Floyd got a 54.8 run defense grade, 64.8 in pass rushing

Fowler Year Two:

464 snaps, 354 pass rushing snaps, eight sacks, 10 QB hits, seven TFL, 0 PD, 2 FF

Floyd Year Two:

582 snaps, 276 pass rushing snaps, 4.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, eight TFL, 2 PD, 0 FF

There’s a clear split in assignments at this point, as Fowler takes fewer than 100 run defense snaps and Floyd is split fairly even between the two. The Jacksonville Jaguars were now playing under Doug Marrone, though Todd Wash remained the defensive coordinator, and Fowler continued to work in behind Campbell and Ngakoue, both Pro Bowlers in 2017.

Floyd played in 237 run defense snaps and seemed to excel there but his pass rush was slipping from a promising beginning. It is also worth noting that while Fowler missed his entire first season, Floyd missed four games as a rookie and six games in 2017. He has played in all 32 games since.

PFF gave Fowler a 54.2 grade for run defense, 69.7 for pass rush

PFF gave Floyd a 70.7 grade for run defense, 61.3 for pass rush

Fowler Year Three:

577 snaps, 373 pass rushing snaps, four sacks, six QB hits, five TFL, one PD, 2 FF

Floyd Year Three:

793 snaps, 443 pass rushing snaps, four sacks, 11 QB hits, nine TFL, four PD, 0 FF

It is during 2018 that both players experience some major transitions in their careers. Fowler spent seven more games with the Jaguars, recording two sacks, then was traded to play for Wade Phillips and the Rams. In the final eight games, he again only had two sacks, but he had looked much more productive in LA than he did in Jacksonville that year.

Floyd stayed in Fangio’s defense even after Matt Nagy replaced John Fox, but the team now added Khalil Mack in trade, Roquan Smith in the draft, and still had Hicks. Here is Staley talking about Floyd during the 2018 season:

Fowler had been on the NFL’s most exciting defense in 2017, Floyd the most exciting in 2018. Both were relegated to being key role players behind stars as opposed to being the actual stars their teams hoped they’d be when they drafted them in the top-10. They were quality players perhaps only criticized because the Jags and Bears (and many teams that would have drafted them but couldn’t) overvalued them in the draft. That’s sort of why I try to avoid bashing players for being “busts” or being underwhelmed because of their draft status: in some cases it is because the player is incompetent or lazy or reckless but if a player is working hard and just doesn’t fit well with the team that drafted him isn’t that the fault of the evaluating team?

Why bash Fowler or Floyd? Both would be considered steals if they had been drafted in round three or four maybe but they were taken much earlier because every NFL team still struggles to find the magic recipe for consistent draft success.

That being said, 2018 was a crushing blow to Floyd’s prospects as a pass rusher. He was now 26 and in roughly 170 additional pass rushing opportunities, he had virtually the same amount of pass rushing production as a year before. Playing with Mack didn’t seem to help free him any and while he had value, that’s clearly not where it was.

PFF graded Fowler 53 against the run, 71.5 as a pass rusher

PFF graded Floyd 79.3 against the run, 58 as a pass rusher

These two players are going in opposite directions as far as run vs pass.

Fowler, 2019:

880 snaps, 507 pass rushing snaps, 11.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, 16 TFL, six PD, two FF

Floyd, 2019:

899 snaps, 442 pass rushing snaps, three sacks, 12 QB hits, three TFL, one PD, 0 FF

The most clear splitting of abilities yet as both Fowler and Floyd saw career-high playing time last year but Fowler is the only one who became productive in getting to the QB. Despite a career-high 442 pass rushing snaps, Floyd posted a career-low three sacks, as well as only three tackles for a loss. I can note now that Floyd only has one career forced fumble and it came back in 2016.

Fowler was now one of the main defensive players for LA and he put up the one great season between either of these players.

PFF now gave Fowler a run defense grade of 75, a pass rush grade of 73.4

PFF gave Floyd a run defense grade of 73.3, a pass rush grade of 61.4

The Comparison

Nobody can tell you what Floyd is going to do on defense when the next season is underway. If the Jaguars had known that Fowler would have the 2019 that he had, would they have asked more of him in trade? Would they have kept him? We can’t say if Floyd will have a spike in pass rush production, as Fowler did, or if he’ll continue to look as he did on the Bears. I’d prefer to stick to what we do know:

Floyd is taller, but lankier. He was faster at 244 lbs, but he may be slower at his current weight than Fowler. He may be able to jump higher and further, though the direct correlation between that skill and getting to the quarterback is yet unknown.

Floyd is far less productive as a pass rusher and in all three of his campaigns after the first one he’s been perhaps a net negative in that area rather than a positive. However, Floyd has four consistent seasons as a quality player against the run and other than in 2019, seemed to clearly be ahead of Fowler in that regard.

Floyd is two years older, turning 28 in September. There are quite a few examples of edge rushers not getting productive in getting to the quarterback until the second half of their careers, especially on new teams, so his age doesn’t preclude him from improvement but it is a fact that he’s two years older than the guy he is replacing.

Overall, I think there’s a not-distant reality in which Floyd could be at least an all-around replacement, if not an upgrade to, Dante Fowler. That is in the sense that what you lose in pass rushing perhaps you gain in run defense and other considerations. However, because pass rush is significantly more important the run defense, we must also note that it will take an outstanding season against the run for that to matter. Also, Fowler seemed to do quite well against the run in 2019 so it would be difficult for Floyd to out-pace him by much in that area of defense.

The Rams are then banking on Floyd to be better as a pass rusher than he’s ever been before, with his old outside linebackers coach now serving as his defensive coordinator. If he fails at that, then Snead spent $10 million for a role player.

If he succeeds, then it could be that LA is searching for “the next Leonard Floyd” when he becomes a free agent.