Malik McDowell has the talent and skills to excel in the NFL, but can he consistently keep his head in the game?
What you need to know: McDowell was named first-team All-Big Ten last season, despite missing the final three games of the year with an ankle injury. Before departing the Michigan State lineup, McDowell recorded 34 tackles (7.0 for loss) and 1.5 sacks. He arguably had a stronger case for All-Big Ten in 2015, when he was a second-teamer with 41 tackles (13.0 for loss), 4.5 sacks and a pick-six vs. Penn State, in a victory that sent the Spartans to the Big Ten title game. McDowell played in every game of his true freshman season (2014). For his career, he totaled 24.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Strengths: During one scene in the movie “Miracle,” assistant coach Craig Patrick questions Herb Brooks’s choice of Jim Craig as starting goalie.
“You know, people I speak to say that Craig’s game has been off since his mom died,” Patrick says.
Brooks replies, “They ever see him when his game is on?”
Which brings us to McDowell, who when playing at his peak has looked like a top-five talent relative to this draft class. Of course, one really has to dial back to 2015 to get the complete McDowell experience because of a hit-or-miss ’16, but his size (6' 6", 295 lbs.) and athleticism up front make him an option for just about any team drafting in Round 1.
McDowell really fits the physical mold of a 3–4 NFL end—J.J. Watt, atop the pedestal at that position, is 6' 5", 295. He was mainly a 4–3 tackle for the Spartans, splitting time between a three-tech and nose tackle (0-/1-tech) roles. That McDowell has that obvious scheme versatility is among his best qualities.
“I’ve been playing all over the line my whole life,” McDowell said. “It was just something I picked up on growing up. ... [NFL teams] find it very appealing. They ain’t been telling me much, but I guess they like it.”
McDowell moves with impressive lateral quickness—on run plays, he can probe a gap at the line, bounce off and redirect into another space to find a ball carrier. He’s also able to chase down plays that angle away from his off the far tackle.
The quickness makes him tough to catch on stunts and allows him to bend an edge looping wide, too. McDowell puts his nearly 35" arms to use in shedding blockers, as he will extend those arms and then rip free.
Weaknesses: The motor is the big one. Missing games due to injury isn’t all that costly, but even before he exited the lineup in 2016, McDowell appeared less invested on a week-to-week basis on the field as Michigan State struggled. He was almost unblockable during his college career when he played with that mental edge, but it was hard to predict when that kick would come and go.
His unusual pass-rushing technique might drive his NFL coaching staff crazy for a bit. McDowell even talked at the combine about how coaches have tried to clean up that technique in the past, only to throw in the towel. “They tried to help me out but I really couldn’t get it right,” he said. ”I tried to tweak the technique a little bit ... and after a certain point they just started teaching me my own style of play.”
McDowell plays narrow and high, and the former allows him to cause damage splitting gaps, but it also leaves him susceptible to blockers engulfing him. The latter leaves him vulnerable to O-linemen getting into his pads, and he as of yet has been unable to take advantage of his stature to plug passing lanes—he rarely attempts to get his hands up for the swat.
The positives are impossible to ignore, but the team drafting McDowell will have to figure out how to bury the negatives on a more consistent basis.
Player comp: Calais Campbell