What are the New York Jets getting in Will McDonald?
It was a surprising selection primarily because the Jets already had a strong and deep group of edge rushers, but just as surprising was the fact New York decided on McDonald as their edge rusher of choice. Most draft analysts viewed him as an early-second round prospect. Higher-ranked edge prospects (based on meaningless internet groupthink) were still on the board.
What did the Jets see in McDonald that prompted them to feel good about selecting him despite their depth at EDGE? Why was McDonald viewed as a reach by many in the draft community?
Let’s answer those questions with a deep dive into McDonald’s analytical profile. We’ll break down his strengths, weaknesses, usage tendencies, and much more, giving you a comprehensive profile of what to expect from the Jets’ latest first-round pick.
Here is a look at McDonald’s measurements and drill performances from the combine, and where they rank all-time among edge rushers to appear at the combine:
- Height: 6′ 3⅝” (46th percentile)
- Weight: 239 pounds (3rd percentile)
- Wingspan: 82¼” (80th percentile)
- Arm length: 34⅞” (90th percentile)
- Hand size: 9½” (26th percentile)
- Vertical jump: 36″ (79th percentile)
- Broad jump: 132″ (98th percentile)
McDonald possesses tremendous length but is quite small for an edge rusher. His lack of size and strength at the point of attack is one of the most common criticisms levied upon him in scouting reports.
The only two drills McDonald participated in were the vertical jump and the broad jump. He shined in both drills, especially the broad jump, flashing his elite explosiveness. It’s a trait that will fit in perfectly with a Jets defensive line that plays aggressively and values players who can get downhill in a hurry.
McDonald did not run the forty-yard dash or the agility drills at the combine, but he did participate in those drills at his pro day. Here is a complete look at his athletic profile, via RAS:
McDonald posted a great forty time of 4.70, although considering he ran it with a light 239-pound frame, it wasn’t particularly outstanding. However, his agility drills were far more special. McDonald’s 6.85 time in the three-cone is good enough for the 99th percentile all-time among edge prospects, per RAS, while his 4.22 time in the 20-yard shuttle is good enough for the 94th percentile.
Overall, McDonald’s Relative Athletic Score of 9.66 placed third-best among edge rushers in the 2023 class and ranks at the 97th percentile all-time among edge rusher prospects. Myles Murphy (9.71) and Yaya Diaby (9.87) are the only edge rushers in the 2023 class with a better score than McDonald.
In McDonald, the Jets are getting a small but lengthy edge rusher who boasts top-tier explosiveness and agility.
McDonald was miscast in Iowa State’s defense. Rather than using him as a pure edge rusher, the Cyclones asked him to play a lot of snaps on the interior, which was a poor fit.
Take a look at the distribution of McDonald’s snaps in 2022:
- Edge: 56.7%
- Over tackle (4-tech/4i-tech): 30.2%
- Over guard (2i-tech/2-tech/3-tech): 10.3%
- Off-ball LB: 2.9%
There’s nothing about McDonald’s athletic profile, build, or skill set that suggests he should ever be playing on the interior, but for whatever reason, Iowa State still made him do it on over 40% of his snaps. This was unfair to McDonald from an NFL scouting perspective, as it made him look worse on film and on the stat sheet than he would have looked if he were properly cast as a full-time edge rusher.
This leads us to what could be the number one reason why there was such a large disparity between McDonald’s consensus ranking on the internet and his actual draft position: The Jets completely ignored McDonald’s performance on the interior and focused solely on what he showed as an edge rusher.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh inadvertently revealed this in a video released by the team, featuring Saleh speaking to McDonald on the phone after New York selected him. Saleh told McDonald, “We’ll get you out of that 4i and get you in that Wide 9, and get you firing off the ball and getting after the quarterback.” You can hear it at the 0:45 mark in the clip below.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 28, 2023
Saleh is referring to the 4i-technique, which is when a defensive lineman lines up over the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle. This position is where McDonald played most of his miscast snaps on the interior. Saleh then says the Jets will put McDonald in his best position: at the Wide 9 technique, where he’ll line up far outside of the offensive tackle so he can build a head of steam and use his speed to win around the corner.
Although McDonald technically won’t line up as a Wide 9 on every snap he plays as a Jet – the Wide 9 entails an unusually large distance outside of the OT and is typically reserved for obvious passing situations, while the more traditional 5-technique alignment is directly over the outside shoulder of the OT – the bottom line is he will be playing the vast majority (if not all) of his snaps on the edge. McDonald won’t have to worry about being miscast as a defensive tackle in New York.
When it comes to left side/right side, McDonald is versatile. He routinely rotated between both sides in 2022, finishing with a 48%/52% left/right split.
McDonald offers some potential as an edge rusher who can drop into coverage on occasion. He played 59 coverage snaps at Iowa State (1.2 per game) and produced good results. McDonald was targeted six times and allowed four catches for only 27 yards (4.5 yards per target); he even recorded one pass breakup. The Jets don’t ask their edge rushers to drop into coverage very often, but it’s a nice bonus that could allow the Jets to shake up their defensive playbook.
Tantalizing big-play potential
The most appealing part of McDonald’s game is his potential to become an elite-level producer of game-changing plays. His profile gives him an excellent chance of developing into the type of edge rusher who generates massive totals of sacks and forced fumbles.
Thanks to his incredible bend around the edge, McDonald excels at converting his wins and pressures into sacks. Once he beats the tackle, his ability to tightly turn the corner helps him create favorable angles to the quarterback, ensuring he finishes plays with sacks instead of only forcing the quarterback to move.
This is portrayed in McDonald’s statistics. McDonald had 127 total pressures in his career and an impressive 35 of those were sacks. That gives McDonald a pressure-to-sack rate of 27.6%, which is outstanding. For reference, the 2022 national average for edge rushers was 16.1%.
In the NFL, McDonald’s 27.6% rate would have placed him ninth-best out of 113 qualified edge rushers in 2022. It’s closest to Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith (27.3%), who finished with a sack on 15 of his 55 total pressures.
This specific trait is likely one of the main reasons why the Jets valued McDonald so highly. It’s an area where they have plenty of room to improve.
Yes, New York’s edge rushers won their battles very consistently in 2022, ranking fifth-best out of 32 edge units as they combined to create pressure on 12.5% of their pass rush snaps. But they only had 25 sacks to 172 pressures, giving them a 22nd-ranked pressure-to-sack rate of 14.5%. Finishing was an issue.
The Jets already had edge rushers who cause havoc at a consistent rate. What the Jets didn’t have is an edge rusher who can finish plays at the level of the NFL’s household-name superstars. So, even with an already-solid group of edge rushers, it’s not shocking the Jets were infatuated with a guy who has shown the potential to become an elite sack artist.
Furthermore, McDonald has displayed a unique knack for knocking the football loose – a product of his long arms. McDonald forced 10 fumbles in his Iowa State career. With those 10 forced fumbles coming across 125 total tackles, McDonald forced a fumble on 8.0% of his career tackles. That’s off the charts – for perspective, the 2022 FBS average for edge rushers was 2.2%.
To exemplify the absurdity of an 8.0% rate, McDonald could force three fumbles with only 38 total tackles or five fumbles with 60 tackles.
I wouldn’t expect to maintain McDonald to retain such an exorbitant rate in the NFL, but even if he drops a few percentage points, he would still be one of the NFL’s best strip-sack machines. As an example, when Von Miller was in his prime (2011-18; his pre-age 30 seasons), he forced a fumble on 5.6% of his tackles (25 FF on 444 tackles over 8 seasons). That allowed Miller to force around 3.1 fumbles per year on 55.5 tackles.
The Jets struggled to force turnovers last year. McDonald can help turn that weakness into a strength.
Consistency on true pass sets is a promising sign
As I broke down in a previous article, McDonald thrived on true pass sets in 2022. His pass-rush win rate of 45.8% on true pass sets ranked second-best among 443 qualified FBS edge rushers. McDonald faced 48 true pass sets and was credited with a win on 22 of those. He also recorded four sacks, giving him a stellar sack rate of 8.3% on true pass sets (15th-best out of 433).
True pass sets are any passing plays in which there is no play action, no screen, no rollout, a time-to-throw between 2 and 4 seconds, and a rush of more than three players. By looking solely at true pass sets, we ignore plays in which the pass rusher has little-to-no chance of winning his rep, meaning we are getting a more accurate evaluation of the player’s pure pass rushing skill.
There can be a lot of noise when evaluating pass rushing statistics. True pass set data can help us weed out some of that noise. McDonald’s spectacular efficiency in true one-on-one battles is an extremely promising sign when trying to project how he will perform in the future.
Questionable run defense
McDonald’s run defense is a question mark.
In 2022, McDonald was decent against the run, although he was more pedestrian than you would like from a top-15 draft pick. McDonald ranked 70th out of 220 qualified FBS edge rushers with a 7.0% run-stop rate, 85th with a PFF run-defense grade of 70.7, and 107th with a missed tackle rate of 12.5%. Those aren’t bad numbers, but as a 23-year-old fifth-year player, his lack of dominance against the run raises concern about how he will hold up in the NFL.
To be fair, McDonald was playing out of position for much of the season. Expecting a 239-pound player to succeed against the run from the interior is unwise. He could become a better run defender if he plays in his natural position full-time.
Still, it is fair to say that McDonald carries far more concerns in the run game than in the passing game. He’s already going to be 24 this summer and wasn’t able to dominate as a run defender against younger and less experienced opponents in college. Can he set the edge competently against NFL tackles? Throw in McDonald’s small frame, and his run game outlook becomes even more concerning.
For McDonald to eventually justify his status as a top-15 pick, he will have to develop his run defense so he can become a player who is capable of playing on all three downs.
Will McDonald is a lengthy, explosive, agile, and bendy edge rusher whose physical tools and statistical track record suggest he has a good chance of becoming a high-level producer of sacks and forced fumbles in the NFL. However, his age, small frame, and shaky run defense raise concerns about his three-down potential and his ability to translate his college production to the next level.
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