Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell give the Cleveland Browns defensive line top-tier potential.
When Malik Jackson was signed by the Cleveland Browns this past offseason, he was expected to immediately provide the team with quality play at the three-tech position. His starting mate was supposed to be Andrew Billings, a space-eating 1-tech who opted out of the 2020 campaign. Billings will still have a role in certain games, but he’s been surpassed on the depth chart by Malik McDowell, the longest of longshots. Both Jackson and McDowell played great against the Kansas City Chiefs, and the duo should be extremely effective moving forward.
Jackson is a 10th-year pro who has always been a solid pass-rusher, and that’s what the Browns got on Sunday. He generated four pressures on 30 pass-rush snaps for a quite good 13.3% pressure rate. He also managed to bat down a Patrick Mahomes pass at the line of scrimmage. He had some terrific run defense reps as well, and has the physical ability to flex out as a power EDGE in certain situations.
McDowell was drafted in the second round back in 2017 by the Seattle Seahawks, but injuries and legal issues ran him out of the league. The Browns gave him what was most likely his last chance at an NFL career, and he’s taken full advantage of his opportunity. In his first game action in 1,751 days, McDowell flat-out dominated the New York Giants in the preseason, and did the same thing to the Atlanta Falcons the next week.
He was expected to play quite a bit against the Chiefs, but ended up getting the start, bringing his comeback full circle. He logged a tackle for loss on his first official NFL snap, and that was indicative of the kind of day he had. Rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith had their issues with him, but so did Joe Thuney, the second-richest guard in the league. McDowell was extremely disruptive against the run, and while he was credited with only one pressure, his presence was felt on most passing downs as well.
McDowell earned an 83.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked him fourth in the NFL among all DTs, behind only Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Calais Campbell. That’s pretty good company to be in.
He’s still a very raw player, as his toolbox consists mostly of a spin and a long-arm bull rush right now, but he’s just so long and incredibly strong that he can embarrass opposing lineman without being technically refined. And given the technical improvement that Jordan Elliott has shown in year two, it could be just a matter of time until McDowell is using his hands and stringing together counter moves, at which point he’d be borderline unstoppable.
The Jackson-McDowell pairing is not the duo that was expected to start and produce for the Browns, but it is the one that did against KC and should continue to for the rest of the season. McDowell may not be a prototypical 1-tech, but he stands up to double-teams so ridiculously well, especially for a player who is 6-6 and not even listed at 300 pounds.
Billings and Elliott will provide quality depth, but McDowell and Jackson have earned the starting spots, and when the Browns aren’t playing a quarterback who is as unfairly mobile as Patrick Mahomes, the sacks and QB hit numbers should skyrocket.
With Jackson, Elliott, and hopefully Billings getting back to his old self, the Browns would have had a solid defensive interior in 2021, but McDowell's emergence means the unit can be so much more than that.