With the 71st pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams selected safety T.J. McDonald. Buffalo Bills fans might remember this pick as it was part of the draft day trade involving EJ Manuel. Tangential Bills connections abound, as T.J.’s father Tim coached defensive backs in Buffalo the last two years. Prior to coaching, Tim McDonald had an illustrious career as a defensive back with the Cardinals and 49ers. His career highlights included multiple Pro Bowl selections and the chance to hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
With such direct football lineage, you’d be hard pressed to find a player who has had a better opportunity to learn their position than T.J. McDonald. Despite this, McDonald has found a few speed bumps along the way.
T.J. McDonald played 53 games with the Rams over his four-year rookie contract, putting up respectable numbers. With over 200 solo tackles, 5 sacks, and 4 interceptions in that span, the Rams had a reasonable return on investment. However, substance abuse issues derailed his reputation and he was not retained after the 2016 season.
A substance abuse policy violation led to an 8-game suspension to start the 2017 season, and legitimate questions surrounded whether any team would take a flyer on McDonald. The Miami Dolphins inked him to a one-year prove-it deal in March, with full knowledge that it would in reality be a half-year deal. McDonald impressed the team so much that they offered him a four-year deal in the preseason, before he took a single regular season snap in orange and teal.
McDonald stand outs on film with quick responses to developing plays. Where many safeties might spend the initial moments of a play diagnosing what’s happening, McDonald is often already moving. His intelligence and football instincts are only further highlighted by how willing Miami has been to use him all over the field. Despite limited live repetitions with the team, he is moved around frequently and trusted with a wide variety of responsibilities.
McDonald comes in a little on the bigger side for a safety at 6’3” and 219 lbs. His size and solid tackling ability make him a respectable at worst match up when taking on the ball carrier one on one. Despite a prior shoulder injury, he’s not shy about making the hit either.
It’s easy to see why the Dolphins took a gamble on McDonald, but he’s not without his weaknesses. McDonald’s size can work against him, with rapid change of direction being a bit of a problem. Receivers who run more precise routes can use this to their advantage to gain separation. Similarly, he will occasionally take a poor angle toward the ball carrier, leading to breakdowns in tackling.
Miami didn’t waste any time putting T.J. McDonald into the lineup following his suspension, activating him on November 11th. Two days later he found himself in the game for 97% of Miami’s defensive snaps. Miami hasn’t looked back on starting McDonald, as he has yet to fall below 95% of the time on the field for their defense.
T.J. McDonald has already made an impact on the field, with 19 solo tackles and 11 assists. He’s added one interception and 2 passes defended. He has managed to generate some pressure as a pass rusher, but has not recorded a sack this season.
McDonald ran a 4.59 time in the 40 yard dash at the combine. While not eye-popping, this time was around the middle of the pack for his position group. If you account for his larger than normal frame, his numbers shine a little brighter. McDonald was the tallest defensive back at the 2013 combine, and the second heaviest.
T.J. McDonald is a talented addition to the back end of Miami’s defense. His football instincts and overall intelligence on the field put him in favorable position more often than not. Solid technique and respectable athleticism combine to make him a player the Buffalo Bills will need to account for on Sunday.
The Bills will have interesting match-ups that could create mismatches in either direction. A shiftier ball carrier might find some wiggle room to exploit McDonald’s larger than normal size for the position and resulting agility concerns. However, with roughly equal weight and giving up 3 inhes, Tyrod Taylor will find himself in the unusual position of being at a size disadvantage for a defensive back blitz. With Miami already showing a willingness to let McDonald get in on the pass rush, it should only be more tempting to set his sights on a smaller quarterback.