The 23-year old McDonald is listed at 6’3” and 241 pounds and was a three-time first team all Big 12 selection. He had 125 tackles, 34 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in his college career.
McDonald didn’t play high school football until his junior year and despite being an all-state selection, he was just a three-star prospect and only earned two scholarship offers.
He decided to attend Iowa State and played briefly in four games before opting to redshirt his freshman season in 2018. He did flash briefly with three tackles, including a strip sack.
In a reserve role as a redshirt freshman, he produced well again with six sacks and a forced fumble. Over the next three seasons, his production was consistent and he was a first-team all Big 12 selection in all three seasons.
He had 35 tackles and 10.5 sacks in 2020, 36 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2021 and 36 tackles and five sacks in 2022. His best season was 2021 as he had five forced fumbles and was the co-Big 12 defensive lineman of the year but having opted to return for the 2022 season, he had a career-high four passes defensed but saw his pass rush numbers drop off.
McDonald performed well at the senior bowl but was unwell at the scouting combine. Most draft analysts had him ranked as a late first round pick, but the Jets opted to take him with the 15th overall selection.
Now let’s take a look at what McDonald brings to the table, divided into categories.
Well ahead of the pre-draft process, McDonald had already forged a reputation as an incredible athlete. He was ranked fifth in Bruce Feldman’s freaks list back in 2019 with his combination of length and explosiveness and his ability to jump over cars and perform a standing backflip drawing attention.
Ahead of the scouting combine, McDonald was one of the prospects analysts were excited to see and he posted impressive numbers in the vertical and broad jumps but was unable to complete his workout because he was reportedly running a fever. His broad jump was the sixth longest by an edge since 1999.
At his pro day, he further showcased his athleticism with a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash and outstanding agility numbers. His three-cone drill time of 6.85 would have been in the top 10 combine times for an edge since 1999.
One concern with McDonald is his lack of size. He weighed in at 241 at the combine and has said he plans to play at 250 this season. He does have excellent length and a big wingspan.
According to a report from Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, one scout said at his pro day workout that he appeared to be off balance at times because he is “too fast for his body”.
McDonald has played primarily as a defensive end but, over the past few seasons, he’s increasingly been used inside as Iowa State tends to operate with three man fronts.
In 2022, he played about 10 percent of his snaps aligned inside the tackle and 30 percent face up on the tackle as a five technique. He also did this regularly in 2021, albeit not quite as much. It was rarer for him to do this prior to 2021.
In 2019, he actually began the season as an off-ball linebacker, but after playing the first game of the season in that position, he converted back to defensive end.
McDonald is a player who will keep battling to stay in a play, as long as he doesn’t end up on the ground, which admittedly does happen from time to time. Due to his role in 2022 and 2021, he saw plenty of double and even triple-teams.
The most snaps McDonald played in a season was 518 in 2022. Prior to that, he had only played 50 snaps in a game once, but he did play 50 snaps three times in 2022 (and 45 or more another four times) so he should be able to handle a starter’s workload eventually - especially with how the Jets rotate their linemen.
McDonald was a productive pass rusher throughout his college career and actually ended up as the all-time leader in sacks for the Big 12 (since sack records became official in 2005) and sixth in NCAA history with 34 in his career.
He had double-digit sacks in two straight seasons heading into his senior year but then was held to five sacks in 2022 and saw his pressure rate drop significantly to less than one per 10 pass rush reps.
The Jets will hope that the fact he lined up inside, coupled with his reputation, meant that he saw more double teams and teams gameplanned around him in other ways rather than there being any regression from him.
He’s primarily regarded as a speed rusher who displays good bend coming off the edge and, although he doesn’t necessarily display an elite get-off, keeps offensive linemen off balance well by varying his speed and using deception on his upfield rush.
While McDonald, who didn’t perform the bench press at the combine or his pro day, is not renowned for his power, he does also flash an ability to bull rush from time to time.
Since he is undersized, one of the primary concerns with McDonald is that he might just be a pass rusher in the early stages of his career because he will struggle to hold up against the run.
However, the fact that he was forced to play inside more in 2022 and still held up well should perhaps stand him in good stead for his role with the Jets which would see him lined up outside with a primary responsibility to maintain outside leverage and set the edge.
McDonald graded out poorly in 2021 but much better in 2022, which was perhaps a sign that it took him a while to adjust to a role where he’d be required to battle in the trenches more often. Exposing him to such situations can mean that he is controlled easily by bigger linemen.
His quickness can be an asset here too, though. On this play he shoots a gap to blow up the run and then rallies to get in on the stop as the runner is bottled up in the backfield.
This was the kind of play he was starting to make with more consistency in 2022, as he takes on a blocker in the trenches and fills the running lane for the stop.
One thing that is clear from his film is that McDonald displays good discipline against the run, staying in his lane and not running himself out of plays so hopefully there is potential to develop him in this area.
As a pass rusher, McDonald has an arsenal of moves and sometimes looks really good with some of these. It’s inconsistent, though, as he will often abandon a move and go to a counter unnecessarily or throw himself off balance by seemingly trying to do too much. This could be exploited by good tackles or quarterbacks with good awareness being able to sidestep him at the last moment. Fortunately, there are plenty of bad tackles and quarterbacks who lack awareness at the NFL level.
It all gives the impression of an extremely talented pass rusher who just needs to be taught how to be patient and to execute the finer details and trust his ability rather than just throwing together a bunch of random moves and hoping they work. This is something that Chase Young learned over the course of his career at OSU, ultimately turning himself into a top pick.
When he does stumble across the correct combination of moves, or pulls out the perfect move at the perfect time, that’s when McDonald is at his deadliest and there are a ton of one-off examples of him looking like the real deal.
A play like this one is a sign that, even though his numbers dropped off in 2022, McDonald may be starting to refine his technique. The timing of his hand strikes to keep the tackle’s hands off him are combined with good footwork to disguise his angle of attack and keep the tackle off-balance.
It’s no surprise that the majority of his best pass rushing highlights come when he’s lined up wide, which will be his primary (and probably his sole) role in 2023 and beyond.
McDonald has mostly just played field goal defense on special teams for the past few years, but he did rush some punts and covered kickoffs earlier on in his career.
He had some decent production too, with 10 special teams tackles in his career and no penalties. He will probably be expected to play on special teams as Micheal Clemons, Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff all did last year.
McDonald isn’t a particularly productive tackler and he missed eight tackles in 2021, although he halved this number in 2022. Many of these just come from the quarterback slipping out of his grasp in the pocket.
One factor that likely drew the Jets to McDonald is his ability to force fumbles. He had five in 2021, which was fourth in the nation and his 10 career forced fumbles is the 15th most in NCAA history. With their inability to create turnovers in the second half of last year, McDonald can earn himself playing time if he proves capable of doing this at the pro level.
Aside from the one game he played as an off-ball linebacker, McDonald hasn’t been required to play much in coverage but his preparation ahead of that season will have been useful. He will drop off the line a few times a game, but usually just to sit in a shallow zone to react to short passes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his awareness can be lacking when he is placed in these situations.
Over the past few seasons, McDonald has done a better job of getting his hands up to contest passes on his rush. He batted down eight passes at the line in the past two years.
McDonald seems to be a player who has good eye discipline to go along with the gap discipline we already noted above. This is not just on running plays, but also when rushing upfield. He is alert to the quarterback stepping up or vacating the pocket and uses this to his advantage in taking the quickest route to the quarterback. He also doesn’t seem to be fooled very often by misdirection plays and has the experience of playing multiple roles along the line.
One thing that you do see with McDonald is that he doesn’t always anticipate down blocks which can lead to him being sealed on the inside on off-tackle runs.
However, here’s a play where he shows good reactions to help blow up a third down screen pass.
He did not jump offside at all in his college career.
McDonald is a player who has good character, a good attitude and an excellent work ethic. He was praised for his decision to return for a fifth season, time he used productively to help him prepare for the next level.
He already displayed a team-first attitude by doing the dirty work in the trenches rather than demanding a role where he could be isolated one-on-one with a defender on the edge and generate more individual production.
One other thing that was outstanding from McDonald was his on-field discipline. He only had two penalties in his entire college career, both in the same game against Baylor last year. One was for a face mask penalty and the other for illegal hands to the face.
Another key feature of McDonald’s college career was that he didn’t have any injury issues. The Jets will hope he can be durable at the NFL level despite his lack of size at the moment.
We’ve already alluded to the fact that the Jets will see McDonald’s role as a wide-9 defensive end in their defense as a better fit for him than the 5 and 4i techniques he was playing regularly with the Cyclones. This is no revelation, because they’ve said as much themselves. In fact, Robert Saleh said this to McDonald himself when the Jets called him to tell him he was their pick.
A lot of his best film sees McDonald operating within a similar role and playing there all the time will expose him to fewer double teams and less battles within the trenches. That should have an impact upon his overall production.
He was a teammate of current Jet Breece Hall at Iowa State.
The Jets opted to use their first pick to fortify one of their strongest picks for the years ahead rather than to plug or upgrade an obvious hole or weakness. This takes the pressure off McDonald to be an immediate contributor and that’s probably just as well because he has a few things to work on if he’s going to be a full-time player.
Primarily, he needs to bulk up while still retaining his athleticism. Until that happens, he could find himself limited to a pass rush only role like the one Huff played last season. Although he’ll be 24 as a rookie, he did break out earlier on in his career, so this is not as much of a concern as it usually would be. There are also more older prospects this year generally due to the effects of the pandemic.
In addition, though, McDonald needs a little refinement in terms of his pass rushing technique and approach. While that may sound pessimistic, it’s not that he needs these refinements to be capable of having any success so much as that he looks so good when he does everything right that they could help make him truly unstoppable if they can find a way to ensure he does this on a consistent basis.
The upside of this pick is clear, but the coaches will need to be patient with McDonald to get him to reach his full potential. It will also be interesting to see how patient the fanbase is with him if he doesn’t yield immediate results while rotating into a deep and skilled position group.