When the Minnesota Vikings have head coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman working out a draft prospect, as ESPN reported Wednesday, interest is presumed to be very high.
But, without a first-round pick, why would they take the extra time to work out a defensive lineman – one of the Vikings’ strengths – that is projected to go in the first round when the Vikings don’t have a first-round pick? Perhaps because Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell has question marks about his consistency that could cause him to drop, and because Zimmer admitted before free agency that, despite the Vikings’ more obvious needs on offense, he wasn’t going to ignore defense.
While there are questions about whether he lives up to his potential, there is something to like in his versatility.
“I’ve been playing all over the D-line my whole life. It was just something I picked up on growing up,” McDowell said at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“[NFL teams] find it very appealing. They ain’t been telling me much, but I guess they like it.”
With his workout for the Vikings on Wednesday, maybe they wanted to figure out where he could best be used. As a two-year starter on the Spartans defensive line, he was used mostly at tackle but saw some work as a pass-rushing defensive end on occasion as a junior in 2016.
NFLDraftScout.com saw both strengths and weaknesses in his game.
“Tall, limber body type with long arms. Smooth lower body athleticism to sidestep blocks, collect himself in small spaces and redirect to get skinny through gaps. Initial burst to surge off the snap and attack blockers. Bends well for his body type to dip and arc around edge blockers. Natural flexibility also shows on stunts, looping around bodies without losing momentum. Extends his long arms to bully and toss blockers, driving them backwards into the pocket,” the draft site wrote in their analysis before listing some weaknesses.
“High hips and taller stature, allowing blockers to get underneath his pads – gets off balance when he tries to get lower than blockers. Very narrow stance with a high butt. Average core power and can be too easily knocked off his path to the ball carrier. Improved hand use, but still an area that requires development to better shed and convert his initial quickness to power.”
McDowell said he has a style that is all his own.
“Coaches, at first they wasn’t really with it until I started making plays and everything. They tried to help me out, but I really couldn’t get it right. I tried to tweak the technique a little bit, tweak it a little bit, and after a certain point they just started teaching me my own style of play,” he said.
“It wasn’t even that. It just took a longer time. It was hard for me to get it down, so once I figured it out, once I started making plays they really just said go ahead and do you, really.”
He had a stronger sophomore season with a better overall defensive line than his junior year and finished his career with 50 solo tackles and 88 total, 24½ for losses, 32 career starts. NFL Draft Scout said he would sometimes allow one mistake to compound with another.
Although McDowell said NFL teams said his work ethic wasn’t a problem, he also said the feedback he received was to work on his technique and playing hard every down and admitted “there’s a lot of stuff I need to fix, too.”
McDowell was the second-ranked defensive end in the Midwest coming out of high school in Detroit and the 36th overall recruit, according to Scout.com. Clearly the athletic skills are there, as he turned down offers from many of the big football programs, like Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Michigan to attend Michigan State, earning freshman All-America honors in 2014.
Over the next two years he had 20 tackles-for-loss and six sacks.
He’s still young, only 20 years old, but he decided to come out because he believed he could be a top-five overall draft pick “because I’m a good player.” Right now, however, many are projecting him to the second half of the first round.
His talent portends to a first-round selection, but if his inconsistency has him slipping into the middle portion of the second round, the Vikings are there and obviously had an interest at his pro day.
“We got this far,” he said, “so now we’re trying to get in there and actually make some plays, make some shine.”