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View from the O-Zone: Fowler sends the right message

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JACKSONVILLE – His message was clear and positive.

"I'm in a great place," Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said Tuesday.

Listening to Fowler speaking to a small group of reporters/writers in the locker room at TIAA Bank Field Tuesday, there seemed little doubt the words were sincere.

Smiling and relaxed, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft talked about his NFL past – and his future. He sounded like what he says he is – a player taking the right approach on and off the field entering the most important football season of his life.

What may be as important is what Head Coach Doug Marrone said a while earlier.

"I have had no issues with him," Marrone said during his Tuesday media availability was asked about his confidence level in Fowler – and if the talented player was understanding what it would take to be a "better pro."

"I have had no issues with that," Marrone added. "I can only tell you that he has been great. He was that way before. He has been doing a good job."

The "better-pro" question is pertinent with Fowler because off-field goings on are as much a part of his four-season NFL story as his on-field play. He will serve a one-game NFL suspension to start the 2018 regular-season because of a 2017 incident in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. He also served a one-week suspension earlier this month following a post-practice fight with fellow Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

That incident came during Fowler's second practice after spending the first three weeks of 2018 Training Camp on the physically unable to perform list with a shoulder issue.

That's a lot of off-field stuff stuffed into a few sentences, and Fowler on Tuesday sounded aware of how that stuff is perceived by outsiders – and the importance of not adding to that perception.

"This year's really just to show people I'm a franchise player," Fowler said. "I know I can do that on the field. I just have to show people the past – my three years, that learning experience, that chapter – is over. It's about being a professional, being a grown man and just being the player I want to be. What will my legacy be?

"I know the production I'll have. I'll be ready when I go out there, but it's really just about character issues."

It's understandable that's on Fowler's mind these days. With the Jaguars having declined to pick up his option for the 2019 season, he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason.

He could be one of market's more intriguing players. On the one hand, his physical ability made him the first non-quarterback selected in the '15 draft. He has shown that ability in flashes, including an eight-sack regular season last season and two more sacks in the Jaguars' AFC Championship Game loss to New England.

On the other hand, there's the reality that Fowler is playing in nickel situations, and that he has had enough off-field stuff that the stuff is a topic entering a contract season.

"I want to go out there and put great tape out there – fundamentally sound, fast and physical, getting to the quarterback, being stout in the run game," Fowler said. "I don't want to just be known as a pass rusher. I want to be known as a guy who's going to get sacks – and 6-to-10 tackles a game.

"I want to be known as a guy who's an elite player, a professional – a guy who cleaned up his act and left that past … and who's ready to move on from that."

Fowler on Tuesday indeed sounded like a player ready to move on. He said he feels good physically. Faster. More explosive. Stronger. He said, too, he's proud of how far he has come as a professional since his rookie season.

Something else notable about Fowler: he will play Thursday – likely the most high-profile Jaguars player to do so. Because he missed the first two preseason games, and because he will miss the opener, Thursday's work – and a half against the Falcons Saturday – will be his only game action until the Jaguars' Week 2 matchup with New England at TIAA Bank Field. Thursday's game has the added meaning for Fowler of being his first NFL game in in his home area of Tampa/St. Petersburg.

"It's definitely a homecoming; a lot of people will be out there supporting me," he said.

But that's a side story for Fowler. His main story could be summed up in something else he said Tuesday:

"This should be the year I put it all together on and off the field."

If that happens, the most important season of Fowler's football life could be a sincerely memorable one, too.

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