A year ago, former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook watched player after player get selected in the NFL draft, waiting two full days and four rounds before hearing his name called.
The winningest quarterback in Michigan State history was, many believed, a first-round talent. However, he plummeted in the draft as there were questions about not only the health of his throwing shoulder but his leadership after never being a captain in his time with the Spartans.
A similar drop could be in store for another Spartan as the NFL Draft gets rolling on Thursday from Philadelphia.
This time it’s defensive tackle Malik McDowell, a player with ability that appears to be unquestioned but one that has steadily seen his stock drop from the end of his junior season to now. Once believed to be a top-10 pick, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the 6-foot-6, 276-pound Detroit native fall out of the first round.
“I think when you look at McDowell the fall is because he didn’t go out and perform to the level of that talent,” ESPN Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. “The versatility in certain games he looked really good. He played defensive end, played on the nose, they moved him around. First start at defensive end against Northwestern he had a career high 11 tackles and two for loss.
“He’s got talent, there’s no doubt about it. For whatever reason he just didn’t perform at the level expected later in the year. … The bottom line is he didn’t play as well as he should considering his awesome talent and he didn’t always show that secondary move and pursue plays and do those kind of things.”
McDowell was a freshman All-American in 2014 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2015. A big season was expected in 2016 but it never materialized, no doubt affected by the Spartans’ dismal season and lack of playmakers on the defensive line.
He finished with 34 tackles, including seven for loss in nine games. But McDowell did not play the final three games because of an ankle injury, a stretch that stood out to naysayers.
“I think you’re trying to guess on which Malik McDowell you’re gonna get,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Are you gonna get the guy that I watched against Notre Dame that was explosive, was making plays all over the field, playing hard, showing active hands? … Then you see some other games and it’s like he didn’t want to be out on the field.
“Malik McDowell drove me nuts because there are so many plays he doesn’t make his way into the picture frame at the end of the play. Just no effort.”
McDowell didn’t do himself any favors at the NFL Combine, either. According to a report from Yahoo.com, NFL executives said McDowell performed poorly in interviews and one said it was the worst he’d ever conducted at the Combine.
Still, the talent is there and it could be enough for a team to stick with McDowell in the first round.
ESPN’s Todd McShay compares McDowell to Chris Jones, a defensive lineman from Mississippi State that last year fell out of the first round but had a solid rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs after there were concerns about his effort.
“Malik is a different cat,” McShay said. “Forget my speculation, this is what the tape shows. The game he had against Notre Dame I would have taken him in the top 10 if had to evaluate him off of one game. Coming into the year I thought he was one of the 10 best prospects and I think he’s the most naturally talented interior defensive lineman rushing the quarterback in this class.
“But then they go on a seven-game losing streak and as the losses started to pile up the effort started to go in the tank. … I can understand how teams are gonna pass on him because of the risk of using a first-round pick on a player you think could potentially quit on you.”
If McDowell falls out of the first round, it will be the first time since 2013 Michigan State didn’t have a player taken in the opening round.
In 2014, the Spartans had only one player taken when Darqueze Dennard went No. 24 overall to Cincinnati. Odds are that won’t happen again as safety Montae Nicholson should get selected, but after him, there are a lot of players on the fringe.
As for Nicholson (6-2, 219), who is recovering from shoulder surgery, getting picked isn’t exactly a sure thing.
“He the qualities you look for – height, weight, speed,” NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said. “The thing is in this draft class you’re looking for are guys that are a little more dynamic, meaning either they are smashers against the run game or they make a number of plays as center fielder types. When you look at his production – four interceptions in 25 games – not necessarily a playmaker in the passing game. He can come down and he can make tackles, I just don’t believe there is a high value in that.”
Other players hoping to hear their name over the three-day, seven-round draft include LB Riley Bullough, TE Josiah Price, WR R.J. Shelton, FB Prescott Line and QB Tyler O’Connor.
MSU players in the NFL draft
|Malik McDowell||DT||6-6/276||1-2 round|