NFL News & Analysis

Why 'reaching' for Will McDonald IV in the 2023 NFL Draft could still work out for the New York Jets

Morgantown, West Virginia, USA;Iowa State Cyclones defensive end Will McDonald IV (9) during the third quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

  • New York Jets “reached” when selecting Will McDonald IV in the first round: Despite being ranked No. 33 on the consensus big board and No. 29 on PFF’s big board, the Jets took McDonald with the 15th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
  • Why it's understandable: The chaotic nature of this year's draft made it more palatable to ‘reach' for prospects above their rankings in the media's consensus big board.
  • McDonald is a big-time pass-rush talent: When McDonald can attack the quarterback and has space to work in, there may not be a better pure pass rusher in this draft class.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The New York Jets selecting Will McDonald IV in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft was both my favorite first-round pick and one of the riskiest. 

McDonald ranked No. 33 on the consensus big board and No. 29 on PFF’s big board. By any conventional measure the Jets “reached” with that pick, which is important because although there is no evidence that says teams that draft players far below their spot on the consensus board get better players and therefore “good value” with their selections, there is compelling evidence that when they draft players notably above their spot on the consensus board, they do not have good results. Essentially, “reaching” relative to the consensus board has been shown to be a bad strategy.

This season, however, I believe the picture becomes a little less clear given the unique characteristics of this draft. If you followed closely, you will be familiar with the idea this was not a particularly strong draft that was particularly low on “blue chip” prospects — elite prospects absent glaring weaknesses either on the field or off. You could make a case that there were only one or two of those players when typically there can be half a dozen. 

The nature of this draft saw a very quick drop-off in elite talent and a very quick divergence from any true “consensus” in rankings. There was a higher-than-average degree of variance in McDonald's ranking but also the variance in rankings generally in this draft increased quickly. 

My expectation going into this draft was that we would see several “what??” selections in the first round due to this condition but also that when we analyze this draft in years to come, we will see less of an egregious punishment for “reaching” relative to the consensus board. Essentially, this draft was unusually chaotic, which will reduce the power of the crowd's wisdom when it comes to ranking players.

As a McDonald fan, I am invested in making that argument. McDonald in Robert Saleh’s defense, in particular, is a match made in heaven. 

On his draft call to McDonald, Saleh told him they were going to get him out of that 4i [aligned with an inside shade over the opposing offensive tackle) and into the wide nine (aligned outside the tight end).

Iowa State runs a defensive scheme that did not put McDonald in the best position to succeed. A player that weighed 239 pounds at the NFL combine was routinely lining up inside or over the offensive tackle (34.3% of his career snaps). That’s not to say that he was bad in that role but simply to point out that he would individually have been far more disruptive from a wider alignment, but that’s not what Iowa State is necessarily concerned with.

His pressure rate was just 16.0% overall last season, but against true pass sets, it was an absurd 45.8%, the best in the draft class and the second-best in the entire nation.

When McDonald can attack the quarterback and has space to work in, there may not be a better pure pass rusher in this draft class.

The Jets already have a loaded defensive line and therefore have the flexibility to give McDonald the snaps and alignment to let him do what he does best.

They don’t need him to be Nick Bosa, and certainly not right away, but if McDonald can become one of the league’s better situational pass-rushers, he will justify the draft spot, even before they investigate what more he can do within the defense or with an expanded role.

It’s important to state that even though his alignment and role within the Cyclones defense didn’t put him in the best position to succeed, it’s not as if he fared badly in that role. At under 240 pounds, McDonald still had a PFF run defense grade above 70 last season with a third of his snaps coming inside the tackle. He had 17 defensive stops in the run game and a 2.6-yard average depth of tackle, a smaller gain on average than several significantly bigger players in this draft.

The bottom line is that yes, the Jets “reached” for a player many expected to go at the bottom of the first round, but that’s far more understandable in this draft than most others, and there were many people that extolled McDonald’s pass-rushing virtues even before knowing he was going to be paired with Robert Saleh in New York.

McDonald has devastating pass-rush potential, and the Jets already have a dominant defensive line. This is a match made in heaven, reach or no reach. 


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