The Jets made a somewhat surprising pick during the first round of this year’s draft when they took Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV with the 15th pick. McDonald is a supremely talented athlete with major upside, but he does face a unique transition toward the NFL because he played a bit of an unorthodox position in college.
Luckily, he has a veteran to lean on that went through a similar transition from college to the NFL in Solomon Thomas, who is entering his seventh year in the NFL and knows the pressure facing first-round defensive linemen, having been taken No. 3 overall himself in 2017.
McDonald and Thomas both played a lot of snaps on the interior in college, but Thomas played in between 260 and 270 pounds at Stanford — that’s a big leap from the 230-240 pounds that McDonald weighed during his college career. In some ways, McDonald’s NFL projection is a bit cleaner than Thomas’ was in his draft year.
With Thomas’ size, there was an idea that he might be able to survive on the interior and play an inside-outside role in the NFL. McDonald can’t do that at his weight, but having Thomas on the roster gives McDonald someone who has done what he’s attempting to do.
It helps that McDonald is a freakish athlete, which is something that Thomas noted after practice earlier this week.
“Will’s college career was crazy,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even realize he was playing a lot of [4i technique] and I’m like dude, you’re way too lanky and athletic to be stuck in there.”
NFL defenders that play 4i are typically defensive tackle size, even bigger than Thomas himself. It’s impressive that McDonald played that spot at Iowa State, but in the Jets’ scheme he’s going to be an edge rusher all day long.
“Now the fact that he’s going to be on the edge the whole time and use his length and ability to bend, it’s going to be scary,” Thomas explained about McDonald’s skills within the Jets' scheme. “Seeing things he’s already doing at practice is very impressive. He’s still learning, he’s still learning the playbook, he’s still learning how we do things around here. And he’s still performing at a high level. So I’m excited for Will, I’m excited for what he’s going to do this year.”
Thomas noted some specific talking points he’s tried to use to help ease McDonald’s early transition to the NFL. What better person to talk to than someone who had to do it himself?
Thomas is one of the leaders of this defensive line and was attentive to what his teammates were doing during this week's OTA practice, helping them along the way.
“We’ve been talking about the differences in steps, differences in timing, where your hands should be at certain times and certain angles,” Thomas said. “Getting his stance right because going from a 4i stance to a 9-tech stance is completely different and he has a different body type — he’s lanky, he’s long but has a super rare ability to bend on a dime so just trying to teach him to put all of that together and letting him know the differences from going to where you are here to where you are here and how it looks and how it can transition.”
It’s early in the process, but McDonald is getting rave reviews from not only Thomas, but Jets head coach Robert Saleh as well. Saleh has been a clear believer in stacking up on defensive line talent going back to his days with the 49ers — his first year as defensive coordinator, San Francisco drafted Thomas — and McDonald has a chance to flash in a scheme that’s going to cut him loose and try to allow him to make plays.
“He is a dude, man,” Saleh said. “He’s got tremendous length, his bend, just going through drills. I know there hasn’t been much O-line, D-line, but it’s freakish, just his bendability and burst off the ball and all that stuff and his length.”
Saleh noted that there are things McDonald needs to work on as far as his strength (which is fair at 6-foot-4, 239 pounds), but he will be part of the rotation and play at least 20 snaps a game, which is Saleh’s goal for all active defensive linemen on game days.
So far, so good for the Jets’ rookie edge rusher. He still faces a tough transition to the NFL as he gets used to the speed and physicality of the offensive linemen, but as far as the overall situation goes, McDonald might have landed in the perfect spot for him to hit his ceiling as a pass rusher.