Playing college football as a 300 pound defensive linemen is an enigma. Some of these guys are playing upwards of 80% of the snaps a game, firing into an offensive line while carrying all their weight around... All while not collecting a paycheck. There is a high chance of injury for these guys given the conditions they're in and frankly, it often happens that the more talented ones want to save their bodies for the NFL. Now, this is not to say that is is an agreeable situation or even one that is that widespread, but it certainly exists where these gifted college defensive linemen have these effort issues and then turn it on in the NFL.
The embodiment of that enigma this season is Michigan State's Malik McDowell.
The first thing that stands out about Malik McDowell is that he is an absolute freak.
The amount of 295 pound players to run 4.85 is very low and then factor in an explosive broad jump and long arms and it is easy to see why Malik McDowell is so exciting from an upside standpoint.
His explosive ability is on full display as he is able to immediately transition from moving laterally to firing upfield to make a tackle behind the line. These moments for McDowell give a peak at what his upside could be on the defensive line.
A former top recruit, McDowell has been a mainstay on the Michigan defensive line during his three years there and has easily been the front seven's most talented member during that time. Due to his athletic ability, Michigan state moved him all over the place. He would play everything from wide defensive end to being shaded over the center. Michigan State wanted to take advantage of his athleticism and disruptive potential wherever they could.
Despite his size, McDowell looks incredibly at home on the edge and his explosiveness sets up a sack for a teammate as McDowell just absolutely overwhelms the offensive tackle.
With a 6'6" defensive lineman, there is a worry about losing the leverage battles on the inside and outside of the line. It is easy for bigger defensive lineman to continuously be tall coming off the snap and exposing a lot of jersey to block.
McDowell shows an impressive ability to keep his pads low here and stone the offensive lineman, forcing a bad run by the running game.
McDowell has moments of brilliance that are easy to get excited about and encouraged about, but he also has a ton of frustrating aspects to his game.
There is an absolute possibility that this was a poorly called stunt that led to this massive run, but more likely (especially on a Mark Dantonio team) is McDowell shot a gap he was not supposed to and completely took himself out of the play. McDowell has incredible athletic ability and that often leads him to exploding upfield and looking for a play to make rather than finding the ball and exploding towards it. This high variance style of play can yield some exciting moments, but it also can cause some serious problems for a defense if the lineman takes themselves out of the play like this.
Once again, McDowell is able to find his way upfield, but because he shot through the wrong gap, he is completely nullified in the play. You simply cannot have defensive linemen taking themselves out of plays like this.
Here is similarly poor awareness where McDowell has an opportunity to redirect to the ball carrier but just ends up over pursuing the pulling guard and ends up on the ground. This play is not entirely his fault, but ending the play on the ground is a red flag for a defensive lineman.
Here McDowell faces a double team and not only does he lose fight on the play, he gives his back to the offensive lineman, which is a huge sin of defensive line play.
Against the run and pass, McDowell has those moments where you can see a future star but also he is directly responsible for a lot of big offensive plays due to his lack of discipline and inconsistent motor. With 20 TFLs and six sacks in the last two years despite a huge role on defense, the production does not match the talent level that McDowell has. The lack of production makes sense, however, when watching McDowell as he is maddeningly inconsistent and his style is very boom or bust down to down. On top of his on field frustrations, there are loud whispers about McDowell also being a bit too headstrong off the field. While he has not gotten into any legal trouble, it is worth noting that coaches have said things about his character off the record.
NFL Comparison: Coming out of Mississippi State, Chris Jones had a lot of the same issues McDowell has. Jones was similarly gifted as an athlete and the Bulldogs moved him all over the place, but he was hampered by an inconsistent motor and sloppy technique, trying to purely win with his physical gifts and not using much savvy. Chris Jones turned in a very nice rookie season for the Chiefs despite a handful of question marks when he was coming out of college. Hopefully coming into the NFL, being able to collect a paycheck, get NFL coaching and be in a strong locker room will have a similar impact for Malik McDowell.
For the Eagles, McDowell is a really exciting potential fit. His explosiveness and versatility in the Schwartz' defense could make him a scary good defensive end who kicks inside on passing downs in wide nine looks. Even with all of his flaws, the idea of taking such a high upside player (only 20 years old) at the 14th pick in the draft would make a lot of sense. Now, the Eagles will need to vet McDowell to see if he is a character fit, but they (Pederson, Schwartz, Howie) have shown little hesitance taking on guys with those question marks in the past and may think the Eagles have the locker room leaders and coaches to help McDowell succeed in the NFL. Betting on McDowell that high is a massive bet on what he can become, but win that bet and you have a star.