LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Quarterback Kevin Prince #4 of the UCLA Bruins is tackled by safety T.J McDonald #7 of the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. USC won 50-0. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
USC safety T.J. McDonald led the team in tackles in his first year as a starter in 2010. McDonald compiled eight total interceptions during his college career.
McDonald is a big (6-3, 219 pounds), physical safety who plays an aggressive brand of football. He’s most comfortable in the box, which is where he usually lined up at USC. McDonald is almost like an undersized linebacker, fighting off of blocks and making his way through traffic to make plays. He might very well be the top tackling safety in this class. Whether he’s lined up on the line or in an ‘off’ position, McDonald is always very willing to fly up in run support.
In coverage, McDonald has the ability to cover tight ends, whether they’re lined up in-line or in the slot. Although he’s not a prototypical “centerfield” style of free safety, he’s pretty fluid in his movements. McDonald has quick hips and does a nice job of mirroring receivers. He’s not going to consistently cover the deep middle or deep half of the field, but his weaknesses in coverage can be hidden if he’s used properly.
McDonald is an explosive safety; his 4.59 40-yard dash was average, but he also turned in a 4.20 short shuttle and 40-inch vertical. He shows off that burst when he’s chasing ball-carriers across the field—which he does well—or trailing a receiver. McDonald does a nice job of taking away underneath routes by letting receivers get to his hip and then trailing them up the field. He’s probably best-suited covering tight ends and backs as opposed to true slot receivers, though.
NFL Comparison: Bernard Pollard
Both Pollard and McDonald are physical, in-the-box safeties who have some versatility to their games. McDonald has the ability to blitz and can be a force against the run, but like Pollard, he’ll struggle in coverage if he’s not placed in the right scheme.
McDonald could fall due to his limitations in coverage and an unusually deep safety class. Players like Kenny Vaccaro, Matt Elam, Jonathan Cyprien, and Shamarko Thomas will be rated ahead of him on most boards. The third round might be the most likely landing spot, although I could see him falling into the fourth as well.
Fit In Dallas
We should know how McDonald would fit in Dallas since he played under Monte Kiffin at USC. Kiffin did a good job of playing to the safety’s strengths, but I don’t think that’s the sort of player the coach wants in the pros. The Cowboys will move toward more Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks, meaning McDonald probably won’t interest them too much.
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Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.