The Cleveland Browns are taking a calculated risk on defensive lineman Malik McDowell. Could it actually pay off?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry over his first two offseasons on the job, it’s that everything he does is intentional and well-researched. He does not make moves on a whim, nor does he bring in players without turning over every single stone in an effort to learn about who they are.
That’s why the team’s decision to sign Malik McDowell was so puzzling. The 24-year-old was the 35th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, but has never played a professional down. An ATV accident left him with severe head injuries, which was only the beginning of his issues. He has been arrested four times since then, his security footage often making headlines.
He was medically cleared in May of 2020, and worked out for the Miami Dolphins in October of that year, but did not get a second chance in the NFL until the Browns signed him on May 3rd of 2021. Berry and the analytics-based Browns front office have typically stayed far away from players with character and effort concerns, which made the signing of McDowell noteworthy.
Berry stated that after months of investigation, the team determined that McDowell had gotten himself mentally right and was ready to get his life and career back on track. This could very well be McDowell’s last chance to play football in the NFL; if no team signed him before Cleveland, the Browns moving on from him at any point would not be a glowing review, and that could be the end of the story. Berry is attempting to take advantage of a market inefficiency; a young and supremely talented player at a position of relative need who has not been able to show anything at this level.
And McDowell is supremely talented. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that the only player on the Browns roster who is more talented is Myles Garrett, who is well on his way to making the Hall of Fame. That may sound like hyperbole in regards to McDowell, but it is surely not.
As a prospect, the 6-6, 295-pound McDowell’s combination of size, length, strength, agility, and explosiveness was nearly mythical, and his traits have yet to be matched by a defensive tackle since. It is not a stretch to say that he is one of the most physically talented players of the past 20 years, and even longer.
He effortlessly dominated games despite being constantly double-teamed and run away from. He was a true difference-maker when he wanted to be, even without refined technique. Some of the things he did at Michigan State were flat-out jaw-dropping, and while he was quite inconsistent, those flashes occurred frequently enough to indicate that he could reliably do the same thing in the pros.
Alas, talent is but one part of the equation. Our own Joel Cade wrote a scouting report on McDowell the person and McDowell the player back in 2017, and everything discussed still rings true today. McDowell’s elite talent is undeniable, but he lacked any sort of technical knowledge, and based on his interviews at the combine, there was a clear reason for that.
McDowell’s legal issues didn’t begin to occur until after he was drafted, but for a player of his talent to fall out of the first round entirely, there had to be a reason, and it was likely his motivation and drive, or lack thereof. If McDowell hadn’t taken to collegiate coaching, and hadn’t developed as a player over three seasons in East Lansing, what indication was there that he would improve in the NFL?
His career is now certainly on the line, and it’s unlikely that the Browns would have given him a second chance if he were still the same apathetic player coasting on his natural talent alone. Perhaps McDowell is finally ready to be receptive to coaching and put in the work required to be an NFL player, and if that is truly the case, he will not only make the Cleveland roster, but will play a significant role.
McDowell is a three-technique defensive tackle, but he is entirely capable of moving outside and playing as a power EDGE in certain situations, just as starter Malik Jackson is. The Browns could very well keep five DTs with Andrew Billings, Jackson, Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai, and Marvin Wilson. They have five EDGEs who will or could make the team as well in Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Takk McKinley, Curtis Weaver, and Porter Gustin.
It’s uncommon to keep 10 defensive linemen in total, but defensive coordinator Joe Woods likes to rotate his players constantly, keeping them fresh and healthy throughout the game so they can give maximum effort when it counts. Keeping a player like McDowell who provides positional versatility as well as unrivaled upside makes a lot of sense.
All of this potential is meaningless if McDowell does not want to realize his incredible gifts. If he had not gotten injured and in trouble, and had truly dedicated himself to his craft, we would likely be talking about him as the second-best defensive tackle in the league after only Aaron Donald, and having just signed a record-breaking contract. He will turn only 25 years old on June 20th, and has essentially zero tread on his tires.
The sky is still the limit for McDowell, and if he were able to reach even 50 percent of his ceiling, the Browns defensive line would be all but unstoppable. Gustin is a fine depth player, but if McDowell shows the receptiveness and development in camp that he needs to, keeping him over Gustin is the way to go.
There’s absolutely no guarantee that this risk pays off. McDowell could be the same slacker he was in college and be cut tomorrow. He hasn’t played a down of football since early November of 2016, so a layoff that long is going to be a hurdle he must overcome.
But, if he stays on the straight and narrow and tries his hardest, he could begin to approach the player he could have been (or could still be), which is one of the most disruptive and unblockable defenders in the NFL, and a Hall of Fame talent.