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Malik McDowell scouting report: killing two birds with one stone

Still only 20-years-old, McDowell can help the 2017 Bengals in more ways than one.

11 years ago, the Bengals were looking for an upgrade from Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, so they addressed the position in two ways: the team signed Sam Adams and drafted a 6’3”, 307 pound nose tackle out of Michigan State, Domata Peko. More than a decade has gone by, and for the past couple of years, the man holding down Peko’s former position for the Spartans looks a little different than he did, while being a dominant player. That man is Malik McDowell.

Like Peko, the “traditional” nose tackle has been rendered outdated in terms of usefulness. If your hand is in the dirt and there is an offensive lineman squatting in front of you, you better have some capability of at least disrupting the pocket. It doesn’t matter if you can hold your own against drive blocks and stand your ground against double teams. If you’re a one dimensional run stuffer, a competent staff will reduce you to being a two down player. The best nose tackles in the league can cause disruption on passing plays and play on all three downs if needed, and those who can’t, shouldn’t be starting in today’s NFL.

With all that said, McDowell isn’t your typical nose tackle, and frankly, that label isn’t entirely accurate.

This past season, McDowell lined up shaded over the center more than any other spot on the defensive line by a considerable margin, and on a consistent basis, he was wrecking guys there. But he will not and should not be limited to just playing 1T, as he also lined up at 3T, 5T, and even in a two point stance at 7T, and had success in spades at all spots on the Spartans’ defensive front. So how was he successful?

What he does well:

At 6’6” and about 280 pounds, McDowell has great length and takes full advantage of it when playing in the enclosed interior. We all think of length as just being height, arm length and wingspan, but the basis of length begins with timing and the distribution of natural explosiveness. Without those, how long you are doesn’t matter when playing on the defensive side of the ball.

Ignore the fact that he’s going against Furman University here and recognize the traits he’s showing: the snap explosion, launching his hands towards the center’s chest, and the closing speed to finish. McDowell’s seemingly impressive arm length will be confirmed later this month at the scouting combine, but plays like this are why, for me, it won’t be a huge determinant of success with him. His extension is so well timed, that he can still win at the point of attack, even if his arms are a little shorter.

McDowell’s snap explosion is definitely one of his best attributes, but he doesn’t have to use to win, which is even more impressive. Here, he’s the last one of his teammates to cross the line of scrimmage, because, McDowell is rushing with a plan. His hesitation gets the center just out of position, and sets up his own swim move to split the double team, leading to a path to the quarterback for the QB hit and hurry. McDowell also shows here he has some twitch to his movement, which bodes well for him going up against offensive tackles on the edge, like here:

In slow motion, we get to see McDowell’s process on the edge, step by step. His first step is fast, and he beats the offensive tackle off the snap, so we can tell he’s going by a snap read, not a tackle read. He’s ahead of the tackle in terms of him mirroring the quarterback, so he has the advantage to the edge, and he takes it. His attack is an outside stab toward the tackle’s outside shoulder, opening his path to the edge even more. The tackle can’t land a punch because of this, and is completely lost at this point, but McDowell’s work isn’t done. As he sticks his right foot in the ground, he has to flatten out his path and re-adjust his momentum to meet the quarterback, and he does just that. For being as tall and big as he is, this is impressive movement, and a quality hurry.

McDowell also flashed bend on the edge:

His jump isn’t as quick as in the previous plays, so he has a little more work to do against the tackle. His approach is the same though and his patience and quickness at the attack are quite impressive. He swipes the hands of the tackle, and gets to the corner while the tackle tries to recover and land a second punch, but McDowell dips under the punch and gives the tackle nowhere to land it. McDowell again gets an open path on the edge to the quarterback. You want to see him flatten around the arc a little better here, as his movements aren’t as concise, and that twitch is lost a bit, but his pursuit is constant and he ended up with the sack off a quality rush.

What he needs to improve:

First off, McDowell is the size of a pure 5T in the NFL. He won’t be playing that much over the center on running downs being under 290 pounds, so if teams want him inside only, he can use some more lower body strength. But if his team uses him correctly, they won’t just stick him at one spot, even though he’s more than shown the capacity to drop his anchor at nose tackle, and shed down blocks.

McDowell has the tools to play outside, but he was definitely more comfortable playing inside in college. Playing on the edge gives you less room for error as you are more isolated and the guy across from you has more space to operate; so if you’re over aggressive, the rep is all but done.

McDowell had a few instances like this where his balance was out of whack, and he couldn’t keep his feet under him. He’s an explosive player, and sometimes that explosion got the best of him. On this play, the tackle didn’t have to anything but not trip on his own shoes, as McDowell was on his way down before he reached the point of attack. For being 6’6”, McDowell plays with leverage very well, which is why he can win inside as a 1 gap rusher, but as a free rusher in the first few steps on the edge, it’s important for that balance to kick in and provide control. Balance is something McDowell has to focus on during the early stages of his pro development.

McDowell also leaves a decent amount of production on the table. In 32 career games, he finished his college career with 7.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss and 88 total tackles, so while he often found ball carriers in the backfield, his sack total was slightly lacking.

This isn’t the best example for this specific point, but it was something I saw on occasion. There is a lot to like here from McDowell, the aforementioned length and arm explosion, the leverage advantage, and the drive he gets from legs are all great, but McDowell needs to learn how to disengage and finish plays. That’s the next step beyond just getting pressure. A part of this is keeping his hands active, you can see he just wants to run the guard back into the quarterback, but he can rip the guard to the side and get in the quarterback’s face himself, he just needs to learn those counter moves, and take that next jump as a pass rusher.

Making his case for the Bengals:

McDowell should look attractive through the eyes of the Bengals’ war room for numerous reasons. He comes from a program in Michigan State that’s faced great competition in the Big 10, where he was a well known starter and focal point of his unit. He’s not going to be 21-years-old until just after mini camp this year, so his growth potential is much higher than that of other prospects at his position. And his size is exactly what the Bengals look for on the defensive line. Last year, the Bengals tried to make Margus Hunt their nickel pass rusher who would kick inside on third down. With Hunt and Wallace Gilberry both set to become free agents (who look like they’re on the way out) McDowell’s experience at both a 1 gap pass rusher and run defender inside make him a prime candidate for this role with all the other boxes checked.

The Bengals lack depth at defensive end and still need someone who can provide disruption next to Geno Atkins inside. With his size, explosiveness and upside, McDowell’s realized upside can cross off two needs if the Bengals are willing to take the chance.