St. Louis Rams
Third Round: 71st Pick
The son of a former USC All-American and Super Bowl-winning NFL player, T.J. McDonald has big shoes to fill as he prepares himself for the professional ranks.
McDonald is often compared to former Trojan safety, and 2010 second-round pick Taylor Mays because of his physical style, but he possesses more of a well-rounded game that translates better to what is required from the modern NFL safety.
+ Physical, big-time hitter
+ Excellent blitzer, understands leverage
+ Good range and ball skills
+ Able to cover tight ends
- Stiff player, tight hips
- Late to react in deep coverage
- Limited experience in Cover 1
- Poor tackling technique
At 6'2", McDonald has the ideal size for a safety with a good amount of bulk to his frame. His 4.59 40-yard dash is middle-of-the-road when compared to other NFL safeties, but he had a stellar vertical jump (40") and put up 19 reps on the bench—evidence of power and explosion.
However, McDonald is a stiff player that lacks fluid hips. His lack of agility leads to him wasting a lot of extra movement and requires extra steps to turn and run.
A team leader since he took over the starting job for Taylor Mays in his sophomore season at USC, there are only good things to say about McDonald in this category. He is an emotional leader who sets the tone of the game with his hitting.
Not only is he a clean prospect off the field, he comes from a football family. His father (also his high school coach) was a star at USC and a 13-year NFL veteran, while his younger brother Tevin plays for the rival UCLA Bruins.
Playing the Ball
While he's not quite Calvin Johnson when the ball is in the air, McDonald has solid ball skills and competes for contested catches with the best of them. Unlike most defensive backs, his size is not a hindrance on his ability to make plays on the ball.
In this interception in a 2011 matchup against Arizona, McDonald does a great job playing the ball, not the receiver. He undercuts the route and is able to extend to make a quality two-handed catch.
The concerns about McDonald in this phase of the game are more in his ability to put himself in a position to make a play on the ball than actually make the catch.
McDonald was used sparingly in man coverage, but when asked to he was surprisingly successful more often than not. Combined with good balance, he has a good punch to re-direct receivers in the slot and showed enough speed to run with most slot receivers.
However, there are concerns as to whether his success will translate to the next level. McDonald has very stiff hips and poor change-of-direction ability.
In the NFL, McDonald will fare better against slower, less agile tight ends because of his combination of strength and size.
Working against McDonald's draft stock is the fact that he played a lot of "robber" coverage at USC. In other words, he was used as more of a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker than a pure NFL-style free safety.
Here, McDonald's coverage responsibilities are more similar to that of a linebacker than a prototypical NFL free safety. He does not drop into deep coverage; rather, he plays underneath a few yards behind where a linebacker lines up while the corners line up in man coverage on each receiver.
This kind of coverage is typically used against running quarterbacks and heavy run sets with an extra defender in the box. While this is used in the NFL, one does not need unique traits to play this role at the next level.
When he was used in more of a traditional role in deep coverage (usually in a Cover 2), he showed explosion off the ball and good range. He was often able to separate receivers from the ball with big hits and had a clear physical presence that was felt by opponents.
However, as displayed in the play below, T.J. was a bit slow to react to and make a play on the ball, keeping his eyes in the backfield for too long:
McDonald has a reputation for being a hard hitter, and he lives up to it. When he sees the play develop, he fires like a missile downhill and delivers a big hit.
However, he struggles in his technique and often leads with his head—which he will pay for with his wallet at the next level.
While this is a concern, this is a very coachable aspect of McDonald's game that, based on his character, should not limit his pro potential.
Future Role/Scheme Versatility
While listed as a free safety, McDonald would thrive as more of a strong safety in the NFL.
For teams looking for McDonald to make an immediate impact, he would be a good fit as a do-it-all third safety in "big nickel" packages, operating as a hybrid between safety and linebacker.
One of the more underrated aspects of McDonald's game is his ability to blitz and rush the passer as he understands how to use leverage and get off blocker. He was even able to beat offensive linemen in one-on-one situations.
While he may struggle in the NFL working against slot receivers and reading quarterbacks in a deep zone, if used against tight ends and as an in-the-box player, McDonald could be a valuable asset to any safety-needy team.