How Jets' Will McDonald went from off year to top pass-rushing prospect

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Here's a look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Sack artist: A lot of people were surprised when the Jets, with the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft, selected Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV -- widely projected as a late first/early second-rounder. Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl, wasn't among them.

"No, because I thought he was the most athletic pass-rusher in the draft -- and that includes Will Anderson," Nagy said in a phone interview, referring to the former Alabama star who went third overall to the Houston Texans.

Nagy qualified that with, "I'm not saying he's the same player as Will Anderson," but the former longtime NFL scout said the combination of McDonald's physical traits and college production made him "a top-half of the first-round talent."

The 6-foot-4 McDonald, who checked in at 241 pounds at the Senior Bowl, played outside linebacker all week in Mobile, Alabama, and exceled in pass-rushing drills, according to Nagy. He certainly impressed the Jets, who plan to make him a defensive end in their 4-3 front. It's the second year in a row they fell in love with an edge rusher at the Senior Bowl. In 2022, it was Florida State's Jermaine Johnson, whom they picked 26th overall. (Prior to Johnson, general manager Joe Douglas chose underclassmen with his first five first-round picks.)

"He's a handful because he can give you a lot of different stuff," Nagy said of McDonald, 23, a five-year player at Iowa State. "Great first step, super explosive, a 6-foot-9 high jumper out of high school -- and you can see that when he comes off the rock. ... He can beat you with speed and he can beat you with counters. He's one of those limber, wiry athletes. He's just a really accomplished pass-rusher."

The Jets looked past his pedestrian 40-yard dash time (a reported 4.69 at his pro day) and focused on game film. McDonald became the Big 12's all-time sack leader with 34, breaking Von Miller's record, but his production dropped off last season. After recording 10.5 and 11.5 sacks in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, respectively, he sank to five in 2022. His pressure rates as an edge rusher fell precipitously.

In 2021, McDonald rushed 241 times from defensive end and outside linebacker, recording 38 pressures (16%) and 11.5 sacks, per ESPN Stats & Information research. In 2022, it was 203 rushes, with only 16 pressures (8%) and 3.5 sacks.

The Jets attributed the slippage, in part, to his position, saying he played the 4-technique -- head-up on an offensive tackle. In those matchups, he probably was at a 60-pound disadvantage. ESPN's data doesn't specify blocking matchups, only the rusher's position. The Jets plan to use him as a 9-technique, a wide position that should allow him to build up speed before confronting the tackle.

So, yes, there's some projection involved, which adds risk. But Nagy said, "The Jets were smart. I don't know if a lot of teams would let their minds go there."

They can't afford to be wrong on McDonald, their highest-drafted edge rusher since Vernon Gholston (No. 6 overall) in 2008.

2. Inside the schedule: The Jets' first six weeks are the toughest in the league, based on 2022 records. It appears to be a rude welcome to New York for Aaron Rodgers, but the schedule actually contains some hidden positives. Such as:

  • They have the second-most advantageous schedule in terms of rest before games -- plus-12 days in net rest differential relative to their opponents. In fact, it's tied for the fifth-best differential since 2002, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. This means, more often than not, the Jets will be more rested than their opponent. It's an important factor in today's NFL, considering the short weeks, mini byes, etc. Presumably, this will make the 39-year-old Rodgers a happy man. A year ago, the Green Bay Packers' rest differential was minus-13 days, worst in the league.

  • The Jets don't have any games against teams coming off their bye week. They do have three short road weeks, tied for the most -- hardly ideal. But, again, the lopsided rest differential is the most important stat. A year ago, their differential was minus-8, something the coaches were keenly aware of.

3. Defense is key: That killer, six-game stretch to open the season includes the four top scoring teams from 2022 -- Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. The Jets will have to rely on their defense, and that should be a good thing. They have nine returning starters out of 12 spots, including nickelback Michael Carter II, from a unit that ranked fourth in yards allowed. That continuity, which includes the coaching staff, should prove vital as they navigate the early part of the year.

4. Did you know? Rodgers has won nine straight starts on Monday night, tied for the third-longest streak in history. He can tie the record, held by the late Ken Stabler (Oakland Raiders), by winning both Monday night appearances.

5. Money matters: The Jets and Rodgers are in the process of renegotiating his contract, which pays him $1.2 million this year and $107.6 million next year. When it's done, a chunk of his 2024 compensation will be returned to 2023. Rodgers restructured the deal with the Packers before the trade, lowering his 2023 salary to the minimum with the understanding that it was just temporary.

6. Gift in the fifth: The Jets were "shocked" that running back Israel Abanikanda was still available on the third day of the draft, assistant GM Rex Hogan told the team's official website. Landing him in the fifth round, Hogan said, was "a gift." They passed on him in the fourth round, opting for Abanikanda's former Pitt teammate, tackle Carter Warren. He filled a bigger need than Abanikanda, but Abanikanda has a better chance of seeing the field as a rookie.

7. Clearing hurdles: Zack Kuntz has been an talented outlier his entire life.

As a seventh grader, he was dunking on fellow middle schoolers. By the eighth grade, he already was 6-foot-5. In high school, he won the Pennsylvania state championship in the 110-meter hurdles (14.47 seconds). Those 39-inch hurdles were no match for his long legs.

In March, Kuntz put on a show at the scouting combine, recording the best mark for tight ends in the vertical jump (40 inches), broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches) and three-cone drill (6.87 records). His 40-yard dash (4.55) was a fraction off the fastest time (4.56).

The numbers are remarkable for someone who stands a shade over 6-foot-7. The Jets decided Kuntz, despite only one productive season in college (71 catches for Old Dominion in 2021), was too intriguing to pass up in the seventh round. Douglas said Kuntz "tested through the roof.” At that point in the draft, teams are willing to gamble on prospects with promising measureables even if their football résumé has holes in it.

Kuntz, who missed most of last season due to knee surgery (Nov. 1), was the 14th tight end drafted out of 15.

"Obviously, there's a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I sat there with my family and counted every single guy."

8. TE hot bed: Kuntz attended Camp Hill High School, just outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The area produced the most prolific pass-catching tight end in Jets history -- Mickey Shuler, who owns a car wash in Camp Hill. Kuntz said he got some NFL advice from Shuler when he bumped into him recently at the car wash. Kuntz signed with Penn State, Shuler's alma mater, but wound up transferring after three non-descript seasons.

Shuler retired after the 1991 season with 462 career receptions.

9. Four score (highly): Douglas is known as a GM who emphasizes physical skills, and the stats back it up. Four of the Jets' seven picks were among the leaders in "athletic score" at their respective position, based on testing data compiled by NextGen Stats.

Kuntz (94 out of 100) was first among 20 tight ends; Joe Tippmann (87) was third among 11 centers; Abanikanda (82) was fifth among 27 running backs; and McDonald (82) was seventh among 43 edge players. The only low score belonged to Warren (71), 15th out of 19 tackles. Linebacker Zaire Barnes and safety Jarrick Bernard-Converse weren't graded because they didn't attend the combine.

10. The last word: "If you treat every moment like a championship moment, it doesn’t matter if the lights are off, if the lights are on, if it’s night, if it’s 4, if it’s 1, if it’s Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. It doesn’t matter if you're playing your best." -- coach Robert Saleh on the team's sudden prime-time popularity