Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell is as physically tantalizing a prospect as there is in the 2017 NFL draft, and that’s the problem. He teases with his ridiculous physical gifts but there is some sense that he may never meet his potential as a player. These concerns arise out of his play as a junior and what it looks like at times as there are moments when he looks to be apathetic on the field.
Make no mistake, when McDowell is locked in and fully engaged, he is devastating and can wreck plays in the backfield before they start. He plays with incredible power and can jolt lineman backward with his heavy hands, and he’s athletic enough to capitalize on the room he makes for himself. Simply put, he is a very explosive physical presence, and his combination of size, power and athleticism are tough to find.
McDowell is capable of winning with power and the bull rush, and he can also win with quickness and elite lateral agility. He can win playing inside playing against guards and outside versus tackles, and in those moments he looks unstoppable.
Then there are times when that guy disappears. Out of fairness, I don’t know McDowell and I’ve never spoken to him, but I have no desire to be critical of him just to be critical of him. I’ll be as fair as I can when I say that there are times when it looks like he has mailed it in and is going through the motions.
To me, and this is purely speculative, it looked like McDowell was extremely frustrated with the losing last year in East Lansing, and he had a difficult time with the team’s struggles. Again, that’s speculation, but that explains what he looked like as a player at the end of the 2016 season.
McDowell has the potential to be a game-changing talent at a premium position in the NFL. He’s also versatile as he’s played up and down the defensive line at Michigan State and can be drafted to play in a 3-4 defense as a 5-technique or in a 4-3 defense as a base defensive end while kicking inside on passing downs. There is tremendous value here.
However, a team will have to get comfortable with who he is as a person and player before he can display those skills. In some ways, McDowell and his team are going to have to do a great job of selling what he can become while helping teams to ignore what he has been.
McDowell’s particular situation explains the draft in a nutshell. The entire exercise is about risk and reward, and finding that delicate balance where the potential rewards a player gives you outweigh the risk he brings to your locker room and your checkbook.
It is easy for me to talk about risk and reward, and at what point those two come together because I don’t have a job on the line if McDowell fails as a player. In this case, it’s not a job I’d want to have as it is super complicated, but out of a desire to flesh out some sense of where I think his potential reward outweighs the risk, let’s try and make some sense there.
From a pure football standpoint, I can make that argument that his physical tools make him worthy of a very early selection on the draft’s first day. But that’s not all there is to think about and other factors will make his draft-day wait much longer than he would like. Again, I can see a scenario where he gets selected in the late teens or in the early twenties, and I can see him slipping out of Round 1 entirely.
Players that are selected early on the draft’s first day are viewed with some security and they’ll get paid handsomely because of that security. As the draft wears on, teams make decisions on a broader pool of players that might fall short with measurables or those that have injury situations that haven’t resolved. These decisions are all about risk and reward.
McDowell doesn’t have injury concerns and does not fall short of any measurement, and his case is very different in relation to others he’ll be getting compared to. His issues are about effort and whether he can get (and stay) motivated to warrant taking on the risk. This decision is also about risk and reward, but at this point, the reward you might get is significantly higher than it is with any of the other players being discussed.
If we play pretend for a moment, let’s say that McDowell has fallen out of the first round, we know that the financial obligations are significantly less and that will make McDowell more appealing. We can see the financial terms per pick from http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/draft/ and that helps us to discuss where McDowell becomes a player that must be considered if a team has a need at his position.
Baltimore holds the No. 16 overall pick and the financial outlay at that slot is an $11,801,811 million total value contract for four years. If McDowell falls to pick No. 33, the financial terms are $7,058,442 for four years, but in Round 2 there is no fifth-year team option.
If McDowell falls to the bottom of the first round, or out of Round 1 entirely, he becomes the most attractive option left on the board and whatever risk there is with him off the field is mitigated by what he can do on the field. I’d be doing everything I could to get him as his upside as high as just about anyone in the entire class; you’re just getting a steep discount if other teams allow him to fall to you.
There’s no doubt that teams are going to have to get comfortable with McDowell on and off the field, but his ability to pay dividends could really set up a franchise for years to come. There is also the possibility that he struggles throughout his career to live up to the expectations that come with such physical gifts.
Either way, there will be a point in the draft when he tantalizes a team into determining that whatever risk there is, it is outweighed by his ability as a player and the reduction in what you’ll have to pay him if he slides a bit on draft day.