Dante Fowler Jr. fits Bears needs as 3-4 outside linebacker

Bears defense in transition could use seventh pick to select from talented class of edge rushers.

INDIANAPOLIS — Dante Fowler Jr. smiled while chatting with reporters Friday morning. He's at ease and confident in the face of scrutiny here at the NFL scouting combine. The defensive end out of Florida likes to stay loose and a crack about his favorite NFL team, the Buccaneers, garnered laughs.

But when asked which NFL players he admires, Fowler gave an answer the Bears are sure to take seriously.

"Now that the game has turned into a passing league, (I like) new-generation guys such as Von Miller and Aldon Smith," he said. "I try to work my game around theirs."

Those two edge rushers happened to become NFL stars under Bears coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, respectively, when the two coaches held those jobs with the Broncos and 49ers.

There's no doubt Fox and Fangio would value a similarly effective outside linebacker in the Bears' new 3-4 defense. And considering Fowler is one of this year's best edge rushing prospects, he will command the Bears' attention as they own the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft.

This year's class of edge rushers is considered relatively deep, with Missouri's Shane Ray and Nebraska's Randy Gregory competing with Fowler for top billing. The Bears, then, should have solid options with such a high pick at their disposal.

Entering the combine, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock saw a clear front-runner.

"The way I look at the 3-4 outside linebacker, in order, No. 1, you have to be a great pass-rusher or have the ability to develop into one," he said. "No. 2, you have to set the physical edge, and No. 3, you have to be able to drop in coverage. I think Dante Fowler is the guy who checks off all three of those boxes."

Given how much money the Bears invested in free agent defensive ends last offseason — $34.4 million guaranteed to Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young — fortifying the edge-rush position through the draft would enable new general manager Ryan Pace to spread out money in free agency to other needs.

And by drafting an edge rusher, the Bears could get a player more naturally suited to 3-4 responsibilities than Allen and Young, who are prototypical 4-3 ends.

Fowler on Friday measured 6-feet-2-5/8 and 261 pounds, according to NFL Network. That's widely regarded to be around the ideal weight for a 3-4 outside linebacker. By comparison, Ray reportedly weighed 245 and Gregory weighed 235.

Size was one reason Mayock prefers Fowler at this stage.

"Gregory and Ray are gifted, long, they're going to get bigger and stronger," he said.

Fowler's position flexibility is particularly intriguing. Pace explained Wednesday how he values that trait in constructing a defense that promises to include 4-3 alignments and varied formations.

Fowler played linebacker until 10th grade, when he switched to defensive end. At Florida, he lined up on both sides of the defense and gained experience playing from a two- and three-point stance in a 3-4 and 4-3.

As a junior last season, he led the team with 8-1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

"I cause a lot of (fits) for the offense and really just stressing offensive coordinators out," Fowler said.

He then rocked back and grinned, the consternation clearly one-sided.

•Bears cornerback Demontre Hurst agreed to terms on a two-year contract with the club. After accruing his first NFL season in 2014, the 23-year-old was an exclusive rights free agent. Hurst became the Bears' top nickel cornerback in Week 6. He had one interception and 35 tackles.

rcampbell@tribpub.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

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