NFL draft profile: No. 38 — Michigan State DL Malik McDowell, rare talent but big concerns

Michigan State DE-DT Malik McDowell
6-foot-6, 295 pounds

Key stat: Went from 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2015 to seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a junior in 2016.

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Michigan State DL Malik McDowell flashes dominant streaks but not nearly enough. (AP)
Michigan State DL Malik McDowell flashes dominant streaks but not nearly enough. (AP)

The skinny: As one of the top recruits in the country, McDowell was a big signing for the Spartans coming out of high school. After playing as a reserve as a true freshman, he elevated to the starting lineup in 2015 and has been a centerpiece of the MSU defense the past two seasons. Although he was named second-team All Big Ten both years, McDowell’s play leveled off in 2016 because of more double teams and a midseason ankle injury that seemed to slow him down considerably.

After saying during last season that he would not declare early for the 2017 NFL draft unless he was a guaranteed top pick, McDowell declared after the season. He will not turn 21 until late June.

Best-suited destination: McDowell’s best NFL position is a subject of debate in the scouting community. Some feel his quickness could be an asset on the interior, perhaps as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a one-gap front. Others like his tape best more on the outside, where he can really use his athletic gifts and length to be most effective, either as a big base end or as a 5-technique in an odd front. The good news for him is that he likely fits — in some way — in nearly every type of front. Strictly from a traits perspective, McDowell would fit what teams such as the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers might seek.

Upside: Long-armed, broad-framed athlete with excellent quickness and explosive burst. Can generate power inside and attack gaps from the interior and also strong-arm tackles and neutralize blocks outside with leverage and length. Flattens quickly and would work well in a slanting front that requires lateral quickness. Has the raw skill set that defensive line coaches drool over. Clocked a blazing 4.85-second 40-yard dash and a 112-inch broad jump at a shade under 300 pounds, indicating elite athletic gifts. Can do a little of everything from a number of positions and be effective anywhere from a 1-technique (opposite the outside shoulder of the center) to a 7-technique (outside the tackle, inside shoulder of the tight end). When motivated, McDowell can be a scheme wrecker — watch the Wisconsin and Michigan games, and you’ll see what we mean.

Downside: Perhaps playing a bit out of position and on a defense that wasn’t nearly as talented as the season prior, McDowell’s play was wildly inconsistent in 2016. Flashes of dominance are followed by long bouts of ineffectiveness. Lack of effort and frustration are evident on tape. On the ground a lot, failing to sense double teams and neutralize them. Too often, his hands and feet are not in sync. Not a true powerhouse and will rise in his stance too quickly. Appears far more unencumbered the farther away from the center he lines up. Might not be as diverse, technique-wise, in the NFL as he was in college. Has a high ceiling but perhaps a low floor, too. Might not have enough grit under his fingernails or salt in his veins. Interviewed poorly at the NFL scouting combine when asked about hot-cold streaks and lack of consistent effort. Came off as an excuse-maker to some teams.

Scouting hot take: “The cautionary tale is [Houston Texans pass rusher Jadeveon] Clowney. You see him now, he’s dominant; we had those same questions [for McDowell] when he came out. Does he love football? Is he going to work? With [McDowell], I can’t figure out what makes this kid tick. He might be the type who, maybe he falls [in the draft] and it lights a fire under him. I don’t know. But I need that light on more often, and he didn’t like it when we asked him about that.” — AFC scouting director at the combine

Player comp: Nick Fairley, a player who finally cashed in this offseason but has had to play on three teams in three years to reach his peak. Another comp that makes some sense: Robert Nkemdiche, a first-round pick coming off a lost rookie season.

Expected draft range: Top 50 pick

Previous profiles

Nos. 51-100: Here’s who just missed the cut
No. 50: Indiana OG-C Dan Feeney
No. 49: Iowa DB Desmond King
No. 48: Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
No. 47: Wisconsin pass rusher T.J. Watt
No. 46. Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams
No. 45. Washington CB Sidney Jones
No. 44. Alabama LB Ryan Anderson
No. 43. Ohio State WR-RB Curtis Samuel
No. 42. Florida DT Caleb Brantley
No. 41. Connecticut DB Obi Melifonwu
No. 40. USC CB-KR Adoree’ Jackson
No. 39. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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