The Cleveland Browns needed someone in their crowded defensive line group to step up, and that someone might just be Malik McDowell. The longshot defensive tackle is perhaps the second-most-talented player on the entire roster, and he showed flashes of that ability against the New York Giants.
It was 1,751 days since McDowell last played in a football game. He was considered an excellent prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft after a career at Michigan State that saw him absolutely dominate at times, despite inconsistent effort and practically zero technical prowess.
Injuries and legal issues forced him out of the league before his pro career had even begun, and only the Miami Dolphins in October 2020 showed any interest in him until the Browns surprisingly signed him in May. Given his off-field history, he didn’t exactly fit the archetype that this front office brings in, but general manager Andrew Berry assured fans that the team had done months of research on McDowell and felt comfortable that he was in a good place mentally and emotionally.
Injuries have stuck with him throughout the offseason, but he finally made his NFL debut against New York, and while the competition level wasn’t great, McDowell played extremely well. He provides a degree of size and athleticism that no one else in the defensive tackle room can match, and that was evident on the field. He was constantly in the backfield and affecting the play, even if he wasn’t the one making the tackle. His power was on display as he stood up to double teams and used excellent leverage to push his man into the backfield.
He finished with five tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hits on just 25 snaps. He earned an elite 91.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, pacing all defensive tackles in Week 2. He was clearly the best defensive tackle on the field for the Browns, and probably their best defensive player, period. For a player coming off a 4.78-year-long layover, that’s impressive, even if it was coming against second, third, and fourth-stringers.
One thing we did not see from McDowell was his ability to line up as a power EDGE, something he did quite well in college. Given the Browns weak depth on the edge, especially with Takk McKinley’s status up in the air, it would be very beneficial to see if McDowell can provide any help there, even if it isn’t a full-time role. It would certainly help his chances at making the roster, as he’s battling plenty of unproven opponents for what could end up being two or three more defensive tackle spots.
Malik Jackson is locked in as the team’s starting three-tech. Andrew Billings hasn’t been great in the preseason, but he’ll almost certainly start at one-tech. Neither Tommy Togiai nor Marvin Wilson have shown enough to unseat the veteran. Jordan Elliott was a third-round pick in 2020, but he was playing down to the final seconds of the fourth quarter against New York, which isn’t a great sign. He’ll probably make the team, but it isn’t out of the question for the front office to move on.
Sheldon Day was supposed to be a camp body, but has been arguably the most impactful defensive tackle on the roster (outside of McDowell) during the preseason, though that isn’t exactly saying much. The team is likely to keep four or five defensive tackles, and Jackson can move outside in heavy sets.
The EDGE depth is in a similar situation, though there isn’t as much talent available. Porter Gustin seems like the leader in the clubhouse for the EDGE4 spot, which could end up becoming the EDGE3 job pending McKinley’s return. That isn’t ideal, as the hope was one of the younger prospects would unseat Gustin, but that hasn’t happened. None of Curtis Weaver, Cameron Malveaux, Joe Jackson, or Romeo McKnight have done much, with Jackson performing as the best of the bunch. He offers a neat 6-4 278-pound frame and the versatility to bump inside if needed, but is a poor athlete.
Because of the injuries he’s suffered, maybe McDowell isn’t quite as athletic as he used to be. But it’s highly unlikely he’s less explosive and bendy than the EDGE options past Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and McKinley. At least give him a chance on the edge and see what he can do.
Speaking of the starting EDGE duo, if McDowell does make the team, it won’t be as a rarely-active backup. He’d have a rotational role, and could be part of the NASCAR front, playing inside with Clowney while Garrett and ideally McKinley provides speed and bend outside. With Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah rushing from wherever, offensive lines would have a very difficult time protecting their quarterback.
McDowell is, of course, anything but proven or reliable at this point, but neither are the guys he’s competing with. He’s clearly much more talented than them, and it isn’t really close. He’s also put up impressive tape in the preseason, something the others have yet to do.
Is he still a longshot? Yes. But McDowell has a serious chance to make this team. He’ll need three more good weeks of healthy practice and another quality outing against the Atlanta Falcons, hopefully against better competition, but if his play against New York is any indication, he just might be what this team needs; a quality backup defensive lineman, with the potential to be much, much more.