Malik McDowell admitted Wednesday his speed and endurance felt better than it ever has at any point so far this season.
That's bad news for opposing linemen McDowell will face the rest of the year.
McDowell, a 2017 second-round pick who didn't play his first NFL game until last month, has emerged as one of the best defensive players — and stories — on the Browns defense. He's recorded one sack and two tackles for a loss while solidifying a top-end role in the defensive tackle rotation, a position he won in the limited amount of time he practiced in training camp after dealing with injuries.
The returns on McDowell have been stellar for the Browns, and if he's only getting started, the list of superlatives to describe his comeback and performance will only expand.
"Last week was the first week I felt like I actually got my legs back," McDowell told reporters Wednesday. "The last two weeks have been my best practices, so I'm starting to really get my legs back, so that feels good."
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McDowell completed his path back to the NFL despite missing his first four years due to three separate incidents involving an ATV accident and multiple arrests. After being drafted 35th overall by the Seattle Seahawks, his NFL future seemed over before he could even play in a single game.
But as McDowell was spending an 11-month jail sentence in a Michigan prison, he clung to his footballs dreams, which remained strong thanks to encouragement from his mom, to seek a better life once he was released. He didn't get a shot to fulfill that goal until a few months after his sentence ended, when the Browns were the first team to offer him a contract.
The contract didn't guarantee him a spot on the 53-man roster. But McDowell worked for it and impressed the Browns, who gave McDowell a big hint that he made the roster after the Browns' final preseason game when he was on a phone call with his mom.
"We were just having a little private conversation, and (defensive line coach Chris Kiffin) was like, 'Are you on the phone with your mom? Did you tell her you made the team?'" he said with a laugh. "They hadn't told me yet, but I kind of knew."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski had McDowell tell his remarkable recovery story in a team meeting before the season. McDowell has been open to sharing details of his mistakes and how he overcame them so that others don't follow a similar path, and he didn't hesitate to accept Stefanski's request to speak in front of the team.
"To just hear him explain everything to his teammates and the support that he had throughout the whole thing, just how he talked about his mom and how she helped him throughout all of it, I think was really impactful," Stefanski said.
On the field, McDowell has done nothing but produce since he officially joined the 53-man roster.
He's played in more than 60 percent of the snaps in each game and has appeared to grow better each week. His game logs prove it — he's registered two quarterback hits and one sack in the last two games and helped the Browns hold Dalvin Cook and Austin Ekeler, two Pro Bowl running backs, to a 100 combined rushing yards.
His best game of the season was last Sunday, when a sack and fumble recovery highlighted his ability to overpower blockers and win battles with his hulking 6-foot-6, 295-pound frame.
"There was blood in the water and I smelled it, and I actually made the play," McDowell said. "I got my feet wet, and now I know what it feels like."
The best part?
McDowell doesn't feel as though he's reached his full potential — but he's getting close.
"(I'm) really just trying to get back to the natural movement, not thinking and playing football," he said. "I'm way better now, but not better than the Malik I should be. That's what I'm working on right now."