- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Dante Fowler Jr. hobbled out of the locker room on crutches Saturday, his left leg heavily wrapped, and flashed a smile that rivaled those at the NFL draft last week.

He wasn’t just putting on a happy face, either.

Fowler looked and sounded as upbeat as possible following a significant and season-ending knee injury.

The Jacksonville Jaguars rookie, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a rookie minicamp Friday. He called the setback “bittersweet” because he expects to return bigger, stronger and better next year.

“It’s just one of them unfortunate things,” Fowler said. “If I would have never got hurt (Friday), we would have been talking about probably how good I was in practice. I was feeling good. It was a great first hour. Hopefully we’re going to have a lot of good years to come.”

Fowler’s knee buckled during an 11-on-11 drill during the first of a two-day rookie camp. Fowler had to be helped off the field and carted to the locker room. Tests later revealed the extent of the damage.

The former Florida defensive end could have felt sorry for himself and his situation. Instead, his attitude was so positive that even ultra-optimistic coach Gus Bradley was impressed.

“I see why we drafted him when we did,” Bradley said. “His spirit, his mindset going into this. I find it hard to be matched. For me, my concern was to know how he’s going to handle it, and once I had a chance to visit with him, knowing what he’s going through and how he’s going to attack this, very optimistic about Dante and how he’s going to do it.

“There’s no doubt in his mind he’s coming back, bigger, stronger and going to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Although the Jaguars stopped short of saying Fowler would miss the entire season Friday, Bradley made it clear Saturday that he would be out all of 2015.

“He’s going to be very involved with us,” Bradley said. “You’ll see him on road trips. He’ll travel with us. He’ll be involved in meetings. We’ll keep him engaged. There’s a whole bunch of other areas that I think he’ll have tremendous growth from.”

Fowler was the first non-quarterback selected last week, taken by the Jaguars after quarterbacks Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay) and Marcus Mariota (Tennessee).

The Jaguars were counting on Fowler to be a centerpiece of the defense for years. They had expected him to be a Day 1 starter, meaning he would replace 33-year-old veteran Chris Clemons.

Instead, they will have to wait a year to get him back on the practice field.

“In the future, a year from now, we’ll be all smiling again and talking about me sacking people,” Fowler said.

Fowler had 14 ½ sacks in three years at Florida, including 8 ½ last season, and was the best player on a solid defense.

He didn’t miss a game with the Gators, and the last injury he could recall was a separated shoulder in high school that prompted a move from running back to defense. Even then, he didn’t miss any games.

The last time he sat out because of injury was as a kid playing Pop Warner. So this will be new.

“Oh, it’s going to suck just because I love the game. I love it like crazy,” said Fowler, who signed a protection waiver before the rookie camp and will still get all the money due a top draft pick. “The only time I was able to sit out was when I was in Pop Warner and I was too big and I couldn’t make weight.

“I stepped on the scale and they were like, ‘You can’t play this game; you’re overweight.’ I just watched my guys, and that irked me. So just being able to not be on the field is going to irk me a little bit.”


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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