For the second offseason in a row, the Falcons' offseason plans are pretty clear for anyone who has been following the team. Last offseason the focus was on finding a safety and two linebackers, and they filled at least two of those positions for the foreseeable future with Keanu Neal and Deion Jones.
The focus for the 2017 offseason is to rebuild the trenches. Tyson Jackson might be a cap casualty, Jonathan Babineaux and Dwight Freeney might elect to retire, and Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn are question marks coming off of their season ending injuries.
That's a lot of potential turnover at defensive tackle and defensive end. Dan Quinn loves to mix and match along the defensive line, so wouldn't it make sense to bring in a player who can play a bit of everything?
This is where Michigan State's Malik McDowell comes into play for Atlanta. McDowell was a renaissance man throughout his career at Michigan State. He played every technique along the defensive line at 6'5", 276 pounds. Initially it'd be hard to believe that a player of his density could thrive on the interior, but McDowell has an uncommon ability to anchor for someone his size.
Remember that one-gap defensive linemen typically work within in their "triangle reads", which I covered in detail in my piece about Robert Nkemdiche last season. Here's a diagram of how a triangle read is set up.
In the play below Malik McDowell is lined up at the one technique in between the center and the left guard. His visual key is the guard and his pressure key is the guard. When the ball is snapped he gets his hands on the guard immediately and puts himself in a position to anchor against the incoming block by the center.
While the center is blocking down on him, he does a tremendous job of controlling the guard at the point of attack and driving him into the backfield. What's crazy about this play is that he does all of this while taking a false step out of his stance. Watch McDowell's right foot coming out of his stance. He picks it up and places it right back down in the same spot. He gains no ground with his initial step off the snap and he's still able to anchor against a double team and drive it into the backfield. That's rare.
Again, 6'5" 276 pounds.
McDowell has the strength to line up on the interior and hold is own, but he can also be a force on the edge and rush the passer. McDowell is over the right tackle rushing from a two point stance...at 6'5", 276 pounds. Normally taller players like to rush with their hand in the dirt, but McDowell is flexible and athletic enough to gain leverage underneath the tackle on his way to the quarterback.
After the initial push into the right tackle's pass set, he gives him a shimmy. He fakes in, then explodes back outside to get a hit on the quarterback and disrupt the passing attempt. That's an alien, not a human being.
He's a two headed monster as an edge rusher. His ability to rusher with power and finesse off the edge is bizarre for someone his size. He can also bend the arc around offensive tackles and stay tight turning the corner.
The minute details of staying clean off the edge are prevalent here. He slaps the left tackle's outside hand away then chops it down as he runs past the tackle. After the chop he does a fantastic job of getting his shoulders perpendicular to the offensive tackle, protecting his chest, and exploding through the corner on his way to the quarterback.
The athleticism required to run the arc this tightly at his size is extremely, extremely rare.
McDowell's movement ability allowed him to be an absolute terror on twists and stunts inside. He was almost exclusively used as the "scrapper" when Michigan State ran twists on the interior. His teammate would crash town inside and he would tightly wrap around to find the ball.
His pad level here is absolutely atrocious, but that's something he was able to get away with because of his ridiculous lateral agility. He almost loses his balance as the offensive line surges into the "smasher" paving the way for him. He's able to keep his balance, keep his chest clean, and find the running back for a huge tackle for loss.
A lot of times with young defensive linemen who move the way McDowell does, you'll see poor awareness on the field in regards to reading and deciphering blocking schemes. Even though McDowell doesn't always play with clean or great technique, he's a very sharp and aware player.
McDowell reads inside and outside zone runs as well as any defensive lineman in this class. His gap integrity wasn't pristine on this play, he overstepped his run fit on the playside A gap, but he runs the left guard into the ground while keeping his balance to make the tackle.
Like his double team play against Indiana, his footwork is a little bit wonky here. He didn't gain any ground on his initial step with his right foot and had to take a looping path to regain his position to make the tackle. Now watch the other three Michigan State defensive linemen on this play.
The defensive end over the right tackle gets cut blocked without a strong attempt to shoot his hands and keep his legs clean until it's too late. The three technique to that side never tries to cross the face of the reaching right guard. The defensive end to the left of the formation runs four yards up the field and essentially takes himself out of the play.
These issues are prevalent through all of Michigan State's games; this defensive line was a poorly coached unit. McDowell still shone while playing with these other defensive linemen on a young defense.
The only real issue with McDowell on the field is that he can get overwhelmed at times by heavier offensive linemen on the interior (see game versus Wisconsin), but that makes sense considering he's 276 pounds. McDowell won't be playing at nose tackle in base defenses in the NFL so it shouldn't be too much of a concern. Some draft pundits think his effort runs hot and cold, but his effort didn't seem poor until the end of the season when Michigan State was well out of the Big Ten chase.
If there's anything to be concerned about, it's what Eric Galko said on Setting the Edge (warning: some NSFW language) during the Senior Bowl. McDowell was a bit of a knucklehead for the Michigan State coaching staff and it seems like they were glad to see him go from a personality standpoint.
Strictly looking at what he can do on the field, McDowell is probably one of the top ten players in the entire draft class. However, his "character issues" may prevent rebuilding teams from spending a pick on him that high. If he's on the board when the Falcons pick at 31, they should absolutely pull the trigger.
Dan Quinn has built a culture that embraces different personalities while keeping players accountable for their actions. It would be a nice fit for McDowell and Atlanta would be getting an absolute stud defensive lineman. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Malik McDowell would give the Falcons a young, athletic trio on the defensive line to build around moving forward.