As a whole, Michigan State’s draft prospect pool is not as deep as past years. It does, however, feature one of the most individually talented players of the Mark Dantonio era in defensive lineman Malik McDowell. The Only Draft Expert, Mark Niemi, took a look at the talented former Spartan and where he projects to be taken in the coming days.
Malik McDowell, DT/DE, Michigan State
Malik McDowell was five-star defensive line recruit coming out of high school where he was the number one ranked high school player in the state of Michigan according to many publications. A consensus top 60 player by all of the major recruiting services, McDowell was selected to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
A three year starter at defensive tackle and defensive end for the Spartans, McDowell has declared for the NFL Draft early after his junior season at Michigan State.
McDowell was recognized with both All-Big Ten and All-American freshman team honors after totalling 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks as a true freshman.
With 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss and an interception return for a touchdown as a sophomore, McDowell was a consensus first or second-team All-Big Ten selection.
Despite sitting out the final three games of the season and regressing to 1.5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss as a junior, McDowell was named a second-team All-American by both CBS and Sports Illustrated. He was once again a consensus first or second-team All-Big Ten selection by all of the major media outlets.
A key part on the defensive lines for Spartan teams that ranked #5 in 2014 and #6 (plus a berth in the College Football Playoff) in 2015, McDowell has played every position on Michigan State’s defensive line.
Used primarily at the nose, McDowell was a disruptive force who consistently found his way into his opponent’s backfield despite being a bit taller (6’6) and leaner (276 pounds) than most prototypical defensive tackles due to his freakish speed, strength and overall athleticism for a man of his size.
As a one gap (lined up between the center and guard, giving him only one path to the backfield), McDowell displayed explosiveness and an ability to get skinny and penetrate despite consistently facing double teams.
As a two gap (lined up directly over the guard, giving him the option to go right or left, but also leaving him with the responsibility to hold both the A & B gaps against the run), McDowell displayed the ability to get low and win matchups with power and leverage despite his tall frame, but at times could allow himself to get pushed laterally, opening up a bigger running lane than you would like.
While McDowell was moved around the defensive line and played some defensive end during his junior year, his production unexpectedly slipped in terms of sacks and tackles for a loss.
A bit undersized in terms of weight and lanky in terms of leverege to play the 3-technique (penetrating defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme) at the NFL level, McDowell probably projects best as defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. This would give him more freedom than playing strictly in a phone booth and allow him to match up against blockers in space that he can exploit with his quickness and explosion, yet still compete with in terms of his raw strength.
McDowell could also draw some interest as a hybrid player in a 4-3 scheme. While he lacks the speed and an overall pass rush repertoire to get to the passer from the outside in a 4-3 set, he could set the edge as a base end on running downs and kick inside as a rusher on passing downs (where he’d be the attacker and not the attackee), which could appeal to many teams.
While finding McDowell a forever home in terms of a position is an issue, most teams will be willing to develop him given his size and athleticism. McDowell’s primary question marks as he heads into the NFL are his distractibility and coachability.
McDowell’s commitment to Michigan State out of high school was extremely bizarre, as his mother, Joya Crowe, refused to sign off on his letter of intent come signing day. Eventually McDowell won her over, and she ultimately signed off on his desire to become a Spartan.
Despite pledging to return to Michigan State for his senior season unless he was a top five pick, McDowell elected to turn pro despite a general consensus that his draft stock had plummeted after a junior year that did not live up to his pre-season hype and expectations.
McDowell sat out the final three games of Michigan State’s 2016 season due to an ankle injury. This raised questions from many outsiders about his commitment to the team in light of his NFL aspirations.
McDowell also failed to help himself and raised some additional red flags at the Scouting Combine when he claimed that the MSU coaching staff eventually had to conform to his style of play because they couldn’t change or improve him.
That statement did not go over well with NFL Scouts, who tend to respect the Michigan State coaching staff for producing players ready to play in NFL systems, both on offense and defense.
McDowell’s Scouting Combine statement also confirmed my overall impression that he was freelancing much of last season.
Michigan State’s defensive scheme under Coach Mark Dantonio has always been predicated upon maintaining gap integrity, and too many times last season the Spartans would give up big runs through a gap that McDowell had vacated as he attempted to get penetration into the backfield.
Opposing offenses seemed happy to simply allow McDowell to penetrate, hit him with a “wham block,” and then run right through his vacated gap.
Despite his red flags, McDowell ran a 4.85 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, which was electrifying for somebody of his size. He also impressed with his athleticism in his on field drills.
Overall, McDowell is an intriguing athlete, but he is also an enigma who projects as a late first round to mid-second round draft prospect.
While McDowell’s draft stock would have benefited from one more year in school, NFL coaches will look forward to working with a rare, yet raw athletic talent, even though that talent has not fully translated to the football field.
If McDowell can prove that he’s not about himself and can play within a scheme, he should have a long and productive NFL career. If not, his stint in the NFL could wind up being even shorter than his time at Michigan State.
Draft Projection: Late first to mid second round.
Team Fits: Washington (3-4 DE), Miami (4-3 DT), Oakland (4-3 DT), Detroit (4-3 DE/DT) , Atlanta (4-3 DE/DT) , Baltimore (3-4 DE).