Malik McDowell was only 16 years old when he grabbed Urban Meyer’s attention.
McDowell, a top defensive lineman whom the Vikings met with ahead of this week’s NFL draft, was a junior in high school when his former Detroit Loyola coach, John Callahan, recalled him heaving nearly 300 pounds in a power clean to please a few recruiters — Ohio State’s Meyer included.
“I remember their jaws just dropping,” Callahan said.
There’s no questioning the 6-6, 295-pound McDowell’s talent. A rare combination of size and athleticism make him coveted, but his work ethic has been questioned and an ankle injury further clouded his final season at Michigan State. Those concerns could drop McDowell to the Vikings in the second round (48th overall) Friday, when General Manager Rick Spielman has a few holes to address on the roster.
One of those gaps is defensive tackle, where McDowell mostly lined up for the Spartans. Sharrif Floyd’s playing career is in jeopardy due to a nerve issue in a knee. Ex-Packer Datone Jones, who signed in free agency, is moving from the edge to the inside to help, and veteran pass rusher Tom Johnson is coming off a torn hamstring.
The upcoming draft class has just as many question marks.
“I don’t think it’s a very good defensive tackle draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
Behind Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, a dominant force and consensus top-five pick, McDowell headlines a group with little fanfare. He’s still the type of young (turns 21 in June) and physically superior (34 ¾-inch arms and 10 ½-inch hands) prospect the Vikings defensive coaching staff likes to shape.
“About every fifth play he blows your mind about how good he could be,” said Gil Brandt, a SiriusXM analyst and the former Cowboys vice president of player personnel. “But this is one of those players that you get burned on, because your defensive line coach says, ‘I can coach him, I can get him to play hard on every down.’ ”
Callahan said McDowell, who left college a year early, just needs the right setting to reach All-Pro potential. “It’s always come easy for him. I would never say he’s lazy. He’s not a lazy kid,” Callahan said. “But whoever gets him, if they have a guy — a coach [like the Vikings] have — that’ll take him, teach him, work with him and be there for him, he’ll be an All-Pro.”
The Vikings also could find fits in Michigan’s Chris Wormley, Florida’s Caleb Brantley, Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson, Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson or Clemson’s Carlos Watkins, among others.
Brantley, mocked to Minnesota at 48th overall by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., appeared to be a good fit to follow Floyd from the Gators to the Vikings. However, Brantley is facing misdemeanor battery charge for allegedly hitting a woman in the face and knocking her unconscious in Gainesville earlier this month, according to a police report obtained by NFL Media.
On the field, the former high school weightlifter in Crescent City, Fla., was disruptive in a deep Florida rotation, leading the defense with 8 ½ tackles for a loss along with 2 ½ sacks last season.
A battery charge a week before the NFL draft for allegedly striking a woman and an ongoing investigation can make Brantley untouchable to teams otherwise interested, such as the Vikings.
Whichever team takes a chance on Brantley also will have to see if he can sustain a high level of play in a full-time role after standing out in a Gators rotation.
“I like him,” Kiper said earlier this offseason. “I understand that he’s not a guy that week-to-week showed great pass-rushing ability, but he can stop the run. He showed pretty good quickness in a couple games I noticed.”
Quickness has long been part of Brantley’s game. His former coach, Al Smith, used the athletic then-285 pounder as a fullback and tight end during his playing days at Crescent City High School. Brantley has since bulked up to 307 pounds after compiling 18 ½ tackles for a loss for the Gators in three seasons.
“He’s very coachable. He’s not just a basic big-bodied, bumbling and stumbling football player,” Smith said. “He’s actually pretty agile.”
Unless Floyd returns to form, the Vikings will need to find a new way to push the pocket up the middle on all three downs. Draft analysts bemoan a lack of refined pass rush from prospects like Wormley (5 ½ sacks) and Tomlinson (five sacks). ESPN’s Todd McShay sees one hidden gem just south of the Twin Cities in former Hawkeyes defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (7 ½ sacks).
“Johnson is one of the more underrated guys in this draft,” McShay said. “He’s probably going to be a second- or third-round pick.”
That’s where the Vikings, facing a thin group, could make the latest investment into the defensive line.