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Browns 'counting on' Malik McDowell to build on promising 1st NFL start

McDowell’s NFL career once seemed over before it could even start. Now, he’s a key piece of the Browns defense after a quality debut in Kansas City

Two weeks after he secured a spot on the Browns' 53-man roster and gave himself a chance to play in his first football game since 2016, Malik McDowell wasted no time making his presence felt.

McDowell, a 2017 second-round pick whose career was derailed due to an ATV accident, off-field legal issues and an 11-month stint in jail, recorded a tackle for a loss on his first play from scrimmage in the Browns' 33-29 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The snap was the first of his NFL career, and the result offered exactly what the Browns hoped when they told McDowell two weeks earlier he was officially part of their team.

That play highlighted the rest of a solid performance from McDowell in his NFL debut: two solo tackles and one assist that helped the Browns establish a physical defense against the run.

"I thought he did a really nice job — you saw it on the very first play of the game," head coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. "He was disruptive and made a play. We are counting on him to be that type of guy."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Houston Texans

McDowell, who stands a menacing 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, played a significant role in the defensive tackle rotation Sunday and played in 45 of the defense's 65 total snaps. He received an 83.3 grade, highest among all Browns defenders, from Pro Football Focus. On Tuesday, he was moved from the backup defensive tackle spot to the starting column on the team's unofficial depth chart.

None of that seemed possible one month ago.

Yes, McDowell was in training camp and taking reps, but he was years removed from his last true football game, his final appearance with Michigan State before entering the draft in 2017. An ATV accident suffered a few months after he was drafted by the Seahawks left him with severe head injuries, and multiple legal issues in the months that followed quickly extinguished McDowell's rookie hype. His NFL future appeared over when he spent nearly a full year in a Michigan jail from 2019-2020.

McDowell credited his mom’s belief in him to still make the NFL as his driving force to turn his life around. He didn't even play in the Browns' first preseason game due to a hamstring injury, but he established himself as one of the best defensive tackles on the roster in the final two games and recorded seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and two tackles for a loss.

Those were among the best numbers of any Browns defender in the preseason.

"He is very powerful," Stefanski said the day McDowell made the roster. "He's made sure to make the most of this opportunity. He is going to have to continue to do that, and he understands that."

McDowell's performance Sunday lived up to Stefanski's message for him. His teammates have appreciated his ascension, too.

"I just shook his hand before the start of walk-through and was like, 'Man, congratulations,'" LB Anthony Walker said Wednesday. "I just said 'I'm happy for you.' I remember coming out of college the same year with him and being with the same sports agency at that time. To see him where he is today, that's a testament to his perseverance and his hard work."

McDowell's resurgence has turned the defensive tackle position, one that was full of questions about who would land starting jobs at the beginning of training camp, into a strength. The D-Line was already great with the talents of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the ends, but one of the biggest questions of the offseason was whether its interior could be strong, too. 

McDowell has answered that question: yes.

"Malik McDowell has grown night and day, man," defensive tackle Malik Jackson told reporters Wednesday. "He's taken the starting spot and has been really physical and knows what he's doing. He came in and was in Class 101. Now he's in Class 404. He's really taken it by the horns."

In the span of a few months, McDowell has not only proven to the Browns that his troubled past is behind him and he's ready to fully concentrate on football. He's also proven that he's talented enough to keep a significant, near every-down role in a defense that hopes to be one of the most improved in the league. 

The Browns gave him an opportunity to get back into football. McDowell has turned it into something even more special.

A starting job.

"He has worked at it," Stefanski said. "We have talked about it. He has been through a lot, but since he has been here on campus, the guy works. He does a nice job in the meeting room, the weight room and out on the grass. He takes this very seriously."