Did the Jets Draft the Next Great Pass Rusher?
Whether it's Nick Bosa, Bruce Irvin, or Vic Beasley, the LEO (left-end openside) position is one of the most important positions in the Seattle "Legion Of Boom" defensive system. While Robert Saleh has diversified from the old Seahawks' cover three scheme, the need for an athletic open-side end remains. The Jets have a really good, young defense but are missing that bookend that brings it all together. They chose to address the position with the 15th overall pick this year by drafting Will McDonald from Iowa State. McDonald fits the size prototype of the LEO position, being 6'4" with excellent length (34 7/8-inch arms), but will need to put on muscle. The LEO position is usually filled by the most athletic defensive lineman on the roster; it is going to be hard to find a defensive lineman more athletic than McDonald. Whether he is jumping over cars or bending the corner at the top of his rush, McDonald is the dynamic rusher that Robert Saleh has been looking for since taking the job with the Jets.
At Iowa State, Will McDonald was a 3-4 outside linebacker who was asked to two-gap and control his block. With the Jets, all he will be asked to do is rush the passer and attack. The most exciting part about McDonald's game is that he was still able to thrive in a scheme that he did not necessarily fit. For Iowa State's defense, being able to read blocks was more important than get-off and penetration. The reason Saleh's scheme is so friendly to defensive linemen is that it is just about controlling one gap and getting after the passer. The benefit of playing in a read system is that he was able to learn how to use his hands well. McDonald showed the ability to get inside hand placement and disregard blockers as a run defender. McDonald has good coordination, which is encouraging because, outside of his speed rush and spin move, his rush arsenal is not very deep. Whether it is learning how to swipe, use his length, or gain strength, there is so much room for McDonald to grow as a rusher. The realm of possibility is exciting when you consider the traits that McDonald already possesses.
McDonald's bend and quickness are his two greatest strengths. Growing up with a basketball background, McDonald approaches his rushes as if he has a ball in his hands. His ability to quickly cross over and bend makes him a nightmare matchup for bigger offensive tackles. This combination of burst and suddenness are building blocks for McDonald to deepen his rush package. At the top of his rushes, McDonald has the ankle mobility to turn the corner and close in on the quarterback with little wasted movement. When having to make plays in open space, he has the ability to track the hip of faster skill position players. McDonald plays with good effort and a high motor. If the Jets are able to coalesce those traits with his physical abilities, they could have the next Brian Burns sitting in their laps.
While McDonald has the skillset to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL, I have major concerns about whether or not he is strong enough to be a four-down player. When opposing offenses run the football, he is the player they target. He consistently gets driven back and loses contain as a force defender. In Saleh's system, McDonald is going to learn the importance of get-off and knock back at initial contact. At Iowa State, it was not overly important for him to win at the point of contact, but in Saleh's system, it means a lot. His explosiveness gives him the potential to have a really good get-off, and it is something that Saleh is going to coach into him. For McDonald, the most important thing is to gain strength. At the combine, McDonald weighed in at just under 240 lbs. While McDonald's rushes will be based on his speed and bend, the ability to convert speed to power as a force end will set the tone for that defense on the perimeter.
While I have some questions about whether or not McDonald has the physical strength and toughness to thrive in the NFL, I have zero doubt regarding his mental toughness. In high school, McDonald worked at McDonald's and spent nights sleeping in his car to provide for his mother. That takes a certain level of selflessness and mental fortitude. In just over five years, McDonald has been able to develop his skillset and become a top prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft. He landed in a perfect scheme with a great coach who will give him an opportunity to reach his potential. I get the feeling that this is just the beginning for Will McDonald.
Bend + Fluidity: 11.5/12
Speed + Burst: 10.75/12
Strength + Violence: 7.25/12
Explosiveness + Point of Contact: 7/10
Length + Hand Usage: 8.75/10
Short-Area Quickness + Change of Direction: 7/8
Block Shed + Play-Making: 6.25/8
Run Game + Gap Integrity: 5.75/8
Instincts + Intelligence: 4.75/6
Effort + Pursuit: 5/6
Final Rating: 80
Pro Comparison: Longer version of Drake Jackson
Draft Grade: Second Round