Will McDonald could take Jermaine Johnson-like leap in 2024

The maligned 2023 first-rounder is better positioned for a breakout in 2024 than many believe
Will McDonald
Will McDonald / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, second-year NY Jets edge rusher Jermaine Johnson leveled up his game en route to a Pro Bowl selection. The Florida State product went from seldom-used rookie to rising star at the position.

Prior to the 2023 campaign, the Jets shocked everyone by drafting edge rusher Will McDonald in the first round, No. 15 overall, just a year removed from using a first-round pick on Johnson.

Edge was far from a need, with a stacked group that included Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson, Bryce Huff, and Micheal Clemons already on the depth chart. Even for a system that favors a heavy rotation on the offensive line, it was hard to see where playing time would come for the talented but raw McDonald.

Things don't always go as planned, however. Lawson never got completely healthy and spent most of the year inactive. That opened up some opportunities for McDonald, but playing time was still hard to come by.

Comparatively, Johnson was drafted into a similar deep edge room in 2023. As a rookie, he played 34% of all defensive snaps (312 in total), and while he showed some flashes he didn't make a gigantic impact in year one.

Johnson posted 2.5 sacks on the season, but he was most effective in the run game as an edge-setter. In year two, however, Johnson played 66% of defensive snaps (748 total) which was the most among Jets edge rushers.

He earned those snaps by showing much-improved pass-rushing prowess by adding some impressive moves and counters to his trademark bull rush.

McDonald only managed 19% of the defensive snaps in 2023 (184 total snaps) making his rookie exposure even that much more limited than that of Jermaine Johnson. Still, even in such a limited role, he showed flashes.

Johnson finished his rookie campaign with 2.5 sacks with 151 of his 312 defensive snaps coming against the pass. McDonald finished 2023 with 3.0 sacks with just 99 snaps against the pass. That means 3.03% of McDonald's pass-rushing stats ended in a sack.

For comparison's sake, star Cleveland Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett posted 15.0 sacks in 501 pass-rushing opportunities, good for a sack rate of 2.99%. Obviously, McDonald would have to maintain that efficiency over a much larger workload, but it does point to some innate pass-rush prowess.

Will McDonald will have less competition for playing time in 2024

We've already discussed just how stacked the Jets' edge unit was in 2023, and while it's still a strength in 2024 some of the depth has thinned out. Carl Lawson is gone. Bryce Huff is gone. And John Franklin-Myers is gone. Only Haason Reddick has been brought in as a reinforcement.

The presumptive starters at the edge positions are Johnson and Reddick, however the Jets will still deploy a heavy rotation. They also have every reason to limit Reddick's snap count in order to avoid sending a second-round pick to the Eagles in 2026.

That places McDonald firmly in the third edge rusher role, which is a big promotion in terms of snaps. As we saw with Johnson last year though, the Jets will play the guy who is performing best, and that could make even more snaps available to McDonald.

Unlike Johnson, McDonald is a much more natural pass rusher. The former is a 262-pound specimen who relies on his strength to make an impact. The latter came into the league at 240 pounds and is an athletic freak, posting a 9.66 relative athletic score.

McDonald possesses top-tier explosion, flexibility, and the ability to bend the edge paired with better-than-average speed at the position, all of which are crucial traits for pass-rushing success.

His ability to play the run successfully is more of a projection, but despite being more slender he has some tools in his toolbox to make it work here.McDonald's 34 7/8 inch arms rank 91st percentile among edge rushers.

It's that length that shows promise as he theoretically should have the advantage against most offensive lineman, allowing him to keep their hands away from his chest and being able to shed blocks.

From there, his elite agility should allow him to be a factor in setting the edge and forcing ball carriers back inside where his teammates are creating havoc.

He did come into the league needing to add some strength while maintaining his speed and athleticism. Without pads at this early stage of the offseason program, it's tough to tell if, after a year in an NFL strength program, he's been successful in this endeavor.

How he looks in training camp will be the ultimate test. If he can prove he possesses at least adequate strength to pair with his elite athleticism and burgeoning pass-rush repertoire, he will be set up for a breakout 2024 campaign.

Preseason performance will be the key indicator of a Will McDonald breakout

Jermaine Johnson's breakout became evident during last year's preseason games. Watching the games you saw him pop and begin to dominate, especially when matched up against lesser competition.

That preseason performance is what allowed him to earn a bigger role once the regular season rolled around, and even against starting-caliber offensive linemen, his new-found dominance became apparent.

Therefore, Will McDonald will be a player, and perhaps the player, to watch during this season's preseason slate. If he can string together some consistent flashes, especially when matched up against starters, you'll be able to see that he's primed for a breakout in 2024.

He has all of the tools, and he plays in a system and coaching staff that has proven favorable to developing young edge rushers. Head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich shepherded former UDFA Bryce Huff into one of the most productive pass rushers in the league.

They also developed waiver wire cast off and former fourth-round pick John Franklin-Myers into a versatile two-way monster along the defensive line. These two men were also responsible for the huge year two leap made by Johnson last year.

McDonald probably has more raw talent than any of the edge rushers mentioned above, which means he should become a real terror under the tutelage of this coaching staff.

Pay close attention to McDonald this preseason because the Jets' next defensive star is about to arrive.