+No major weaknesses
+Good body control
+Above average in coverage
-Average ball skills
-Very prone to personal foul penalties
-Struggles to shed blocks
I like USC safety T.J. McDonald. 2013 is a very strong class for safeties, and I think McDonald is probably the best senior of the class. He’s a safe prospect that virtually has no chance of being a bust in the NFL, thanks to his all-around good play and excellent NFL bloodlines.
McDonald has good measurables. He has good height at 6’2, decent bulk at 205lbs, and solid speed with a 4.54 40 yard dash. McDonald has the physical tools needed for success in the NFL.
McDonald has solid stats. In 2010, as a sophomore, he has 89 tackles, 3 TFL’s, 3 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups, excellent numbers for a safety. In 2011, as a junior, he had 67 tackles, 2.5 TFL’s, 3 interceptions, and 2 pass breakups, still good numbers for a safety. Don’t look into the statistical regression in tackle stats from sophomore year to junior year too seriously; it’s mostly a result of improved play from USC’s linebackers (namely Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard), which resulted in fewer running backs getting past the second level of the defense therefore fewer running backs getting near McDonald. Overall, McDonald has good stats.
McDonald is solid in coverage. First of all, McDonald is never going to be a ball-hawking safety in the NFL. He will never get many interceptions. Why? He lacks quickness. He has good speed, but he doesn’t accelerate quickly, therefore he isn’t quick enough to jump man routes. He has solid hands but he lacks the quickness to be great in pursuit of the ball. That being said, he is pretty productive in coverage. He has good instincts in zone coverage, he rarely allows big plays over the top of him, and he is fairly disciplined in coverage. He also has terrific instincts against screens, knowing the screens are the one play that’s pretty safe to bite on (not many teams run fake screens, which in theory, might be a good way to get safeties to bite on a play), and often finding his way through the offense to get to receivers on screen passes.
One thing I will say; as of right now, McDonald doesn’t profile very well in man coverage at the NFL level. Right now, his hips are too tight for him to be trusted against slot receivers, but he isn’t bulky enough to avoid getting knocked around in man coverage against a tight end. In order to have success in the NFL, I strongly recommend that McDonald adds 20lbs and moves to strong safety. He will always have tight hips that will make free safety pretty close to impossible, but, if he adds bulk, he’ll be fine at strong safety because his height gives him the potential to cover tight ends.
McDonald is pretty good against the run. He has terrific instincts, he takes great angles to the ball, he has excellent strength relative to his size, and he’s a great tackler with very long arms and ideal tackling fundamentals. His tight hips hurt him as an open field tackler, but he understands his limitations in that regard, and, as a result, rarely over-pursues his target. He also does an amazing job of finding holes in the line. The one thing that really hurts him as a run stopper is his poor hand usage and lack of quickness, which means that shedding blocks is extremely difficult for him. He’s not getting quicker any time soon, so I recommend that he improves his fundamentals when shedding blocks, allowing him to get better leverage and make tackles in traffic. Overall, McDonald is good against the run.
First of all, I can’t say too much of McDonald’s intangibles at this point, because, well, I have never met the guy. He has no off the field issues, and he plays with terrific on field intensity and toughness, but he has been whistled for personal foul penalties countless times and even been suspended for half a game for a late hit. However, we have to remember, we are talking about penalties. Even though he does frequently commit stupid personal foul penalties, a few penalties aren’t going to be the difference between success and failure in the NFL, and his proclivity for penalties is a problem more easy to fix than others. He also has great NFL bloodlines. His father, Tim McDonald, also played for USC, and made 6 Pro Bowls and 6 All Pro teams in the late 80’s and 90’s with the Cardinals and the 49ers. I can’t say too much about McDonald’s intangibles, but I doubt he has poor character.
Ultimately, I like McDonald. I think his balanced production against the run and pass as well as his solid athleticism should make him a pretty good player in the NFL. He should be just fine for years to come.
NFL Comparison: Bernard Pollard with less bulk. Like I said, I think McDonald should add 20lbs if he expects to have success in man coverage. Like Pollard, McDonald is a good athlete who provides balanced production against both the run and the pass. Pollard was a bit of a late bloomer, though, and I believe McDonald could have success in the NFL pretty quickly.
Grade: 93 (worthy of a mid to late first round pick)
Projection: 88 (will be an early second round pick)