Many were caught off guard by the NY Jets' decision to select Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald with the 15th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Not only did few expect the Jets to add an edge rusher in Round 1, but the one they did add was widely seen as a fringe Round 1 prospect by most analysts. Of course, the media and NFL teams don't always see eye to eye on prospects.
That was the case with McDonald, who numerous teams were reportedly very high on. In fact, according to Mike Kaye of The Charlotte Observer, the Carolina Panthers were prepared to trade up to select McDonald had the Jets not drafted him when they did.
There are obvious reasons to be skeptical about the McDonald pick. From his uncertain role in 2023 to his odd fit as a 4-3 defensive end to even his age, the Jets have received their fair share of criticism for the McDonald selection.
But we're not here to talk about any of that here. We're here to examine how the selection of Will McDonald could be a great decision on the part of Joe Douglas and the Jets.
Simply put, this is an optimistic outlook — a "what if everything goes right" perspective.
Will McDonald could become a cornerstone of the NY Jets defense
The McDonald pick was made just as much with an eye on the future as it was this upcoming season. Sure, McDonald will likely play a part-time role in 2023 as a sub-package pass rusher, but the Jets believe in his talent and see him as a future cornerstone of the defense.
Carl Lawson and Bryce Huff will both be free agents after this season. There's every possibility that the Jets decide to let both players walk. McDonald could step into a starting role as soon as 2024.
If he's anywhere near as good as the Jets believe he can be, then McDonald should become a mainstay in the Jets' defense for a long time. That's the team's long-term vision.
What about 2023, however? The most likely scenario is that McDonald fills the role that Huff played last year as a sub-package pass rusher who almost exclusively plays on passing downs. He could be more than that, though.
The Jets' defense was incredibly fortunate with injury luck last season. Carl Lawson, a year removed from a torn Achilles, went on to play all 17 games, as did John Franklin-Myers. Expecting the same good fortune in 2023 would be foolish.
McDonald is added insurance behind the Jets' starting defensive ends this season, and it's certainly very feasible that he could be thrust into a more prominent role if the injury bug strikes.
The Jets are also confident that Robert Saleh's Wide 9 scheme could maximize McDonald's talent. Iowa State misused McDonald in college, often lining him up inside the tackle at the 4i spot.
While McDonald still found plenty of success, that likely wasn't the best way to utilize his uncanny speed and bendability. Lining him up far outside the tackle box will allow him to showcase his agility, burst, and twitchiness — the traits that define him as a player.
Those are the traits that endeared him to the Jets. They saw an explosive, twitchy edge rusher who has a nose for the football and a propensity for sacking opposing quarterbacks. His skill set is unlike any other player on the roster.
In a perfect world, McDonald thrives in a part-time role in 2023, likely seeing his playing time increase as the season goes on. Then, in 2024, he could take over as a full-time starting defensive end in the Jets' base defense.
This Jets' pass rush corps is scary deep, and McDonald could legitimately be the missing piece. Question the pick all you want — I certainly have — but the Jets' vision here is obvious.
They saw an uber-talented explosive athlete at a premium position who fits the exact profile they were looking for. It might not have been the most popular pick at the time, but there's no reason why Will McDonald can't become a long-term cornerstone of this Jets defense.