Jets rookie has a perfect mentor as he faces the rigors of NFL position change and first-round expectations

The Jets made a somewhat surprising pick in the first round of this year’s draft when they took on Iowa State rusher Will McDonald IV with the 15th pick. McDonald is an extremely talented athlete with a major upside, but he faces a unique transition to the NFL because he played an unorthodox position in college.

Fortunately, he has a veteran to lean on who went through a similar transition from college to the NFL to Solomon Thomas, who is entering his seventh year in the NFL and knows the pressure facing defensive linemen in the first round, having been taken No. 3 overall himself in 2017.

McDonald and Thomas both played a lot of indoor snaps in college, but Thomas played between 260 and 270 pounds at Stanford — that’s a big jump from the 230 to 240 pounds McDonald weighed during his academic career. In some ways, McDonald’s NFL projection is a bit cleaner than Thomas’ in his draft year.

With Thomas’ size, there was an idea that he might be able to survive indoors and play an inside-outside role in the NFL. McDonald can’t do this at his weight, but having Thomas on the list gives McDonald someone who has done what he’s trying to do.

It helps that McDonald is a quirky athlete, which Thomas noted after practice earlier this week.

“Will’s college career was crazy,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even realize he was playing a lot of [4i technique] and I’m like man, you’re way too skinny and athletic to be stuck in this.

Solomon Thomas, now in his seventh season, knows the pressure that Jets rookie passing thrower Will McDonald IV faces.  (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Solomon Thomas, now in his seventh season, knows the pressure that Jets rookie passing thrower Will McDonald IV faces. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

NFL defenders who play 4i usually have defensive size, even bigger than Thomas himself. It’s impressive that McDonald played that spot at Iowa State, but in the Jets scheme, he’s going to be an all-day rusher.

“Now the fact that he’s going to be on the edge all the time and using his length and his ability to bend, it’s going to be scary,” Thomas explained of McDonald’s skill set within the Jets’ scheme. “Seeing the things he is already doing in training is very impressive. He’s still learning, he’s still learning the playbook, he’s still learning how we do things here. And he still plays at a high level. So I’m excited for Will, I’m excited for what he’s going to do this year.

Thomas noted some specific talking points he tried to use to help ease McDonald’s early transition to the NFL. What better person to talk to than someone who had to do it themselves?

Thomas is one of the leaders of this defensive line and has been paying attention to what his teammates are up to during this week’s OTA practice, helping them along the way.

“We talked about the differences in steps, the differences in timing, where your hands should be at certain times and at certain angles,” Thomas said. “Getting his stance because going from a 4i stance to a 9-tech stance is completely different and he’s got a different body type – he’s lanky, he’s long but has a super rare ability to bend into a dime, so just try to teach him to put it all together and let him know the differences between going where you are here and where you are here and what that looks like and how that can transition.

It’s early in the process, but McDonald’s is getting rave reviews not only from Thomas, but also from Jets head coach Robert Saleh. Saleh has clearly believed in stacking defensive line talent since his days with the 49ers — his freshman year as defensive coordinator, San Francisco drafted Thomas — and McDonald has a chance to flash in a scheme that will let him loose and try to allow him to play.

“He’s a dude, dude,” Saleh said. “He has tremendous length, his bend, just going through drills. I know there hasn’t been a lot of O-line, D-line, but it’s weird, just his ability to bend and pop the ball and all that and his length.

Saleh noted that there are things McDonald needs to work on when it comes to his strength (which is just 6-foot-4, 239 pounds), but he will be part of the rotation and play at least 20 snaps per game, which is Saleh’s goal for all active defensive linemen on game days.

So far, so good for the Jets’ rookie edge rusher. He still faces a tough transition to the NFL as he gets used to the speed and physicality of offensive linemen, but as far as the big picture goes, McDonald might have landed the spot ideal for him to reach his ceiling as a pass thrower. .

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