After an offseason in which the Rams parted ways with both of their 2012 starting safeties in Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl, it was quite clear that they had a glaring need for help at the position heading into the NFL Draft.
What wasn’t as clear is which safety they’d target to bring in and add to a mix that includes Stewart and second-year safeties
In the run-up to the draft, the Rams didn’t hide the fact that they were interested in adding help at safety but they did go to great lengths to keep the specific players they were interested in a bit more secretive.
When it was all said and done, the Rams used a third round selection, No. 78 overall on a player who might have flown a bit below the radar but considering his pedigree probably shouldn’t have.
The choice was Southern California’s
Fisher himself was also a defensive back at USC and actually coached McDonald’s father Tim, who also played at USC, with the 49ers. Considering those ties, Fisher had made it a point to keep tabs on the younger McDonald.
“I know his father,” Fisher said. “As generally is the case, I followed T.J. the last couple years. T.J. is a big safety that moves well, who covers and will run and hit. He knows football. He’s very, very smart.”
That McDonald and the Rams were a fit became even more obvious when McDonald visited St. Louis before the draft. Having already heard plenty of good things about Fisher and the city from his father, McDonald arrived in St. Louis knowing that it could eventually be his NFL landing spot.
Tim McDonald Sr. actually played from 1987 to 1992 with the St. Louis Cardinals at the beginning of his career before moving on to San Francisco where he met Fisher. He earned six Pro Bowl and six All Pro honors in a tremendous 13-year career.
Upon the younger McDonald’s arrival in St. Louis on his pre-draft visit, those feelings were only cemented by the easy way he meshed with Fisher and other members of the coaching staff.
“My trip there was awesome,” McDonald said. “(Secondary) Coach (Chuck) Cecil, Coach Fisher and everybody I met with out there was awesome. They made me feel comfortable. We talked football. We talked one on one, (were) honest with each other and (were) able to talk about what was going on and that was great with me and Coach Fisher. Coach Fisher is an awesome coach and also an SC guy and we were all able to talk about football, talk about my last season, their organization and things like that. So, it went good.”
It went so well that the Rams zeroed in on McDonald as a target for the safety position pretty early on. In fact, as McDonald lasted on the board and the Rams waited through a second round with no selections, they grew nervous that McDonald would be gone.
In the eyes of some, McDonald might have been a first-round pick or at least gone earlier had he declared for the draft after his junior season. But he opted to return and didn’t fare as well as hoped as a senior, which may have ultimately paved the way for the Rams to get their man as late as the middle of the third round.
“Some people say maybe he didn’t have as good a year this year as last year,” Fisher said. “We addressed it. There were some reasons for that, but he’s a good football player. That was a ‘hold your breath’ pick, because we were a little bit nervous.”
Despite the concerns about a senior year in which McDonald posted 122 tackles with two interceptions, 6.5 tackles for loss and three passes defended, McDonald’s body of work combined with his intangibles make him an intriguing addition to the Rams defense.
For the Trojans, McDonald said he was technically listed as a free safety and though he played deep fairly regularly, he spent more time than not up in the box as more of a run stuffer.
It was in that role that the 6’2, 219-pound McDonald asserted himself as something of an enforcer for the Trojans. Unafraid to make the big hit, McDonald takes great pride in his ability to force receivers to grow alligator arms when they come across the middle or backs to regret entering his air space in the run game.
“I’m physical,” McDonald said. “That’s one thing I know I am, and that’s physical. I’m coming with bad intentions. I’m never coming with intentions to hurt somebody, but my level of physicality allows me to be able to play free and fast and I’m able to throw my body around and make plays. Being a smart player you know, and being able to know and understand concepts and understand parts of the game, so when I get to the NFL be able to pick up a playbook and be able to understand what’s going on.”
In the aforementioned senior year, McDonald found himself in a new defensive scheme that changed his role a bit and limited his opportunities to make big plays because he was in the run box on a more regular basis.
“I wouldn’t say a bad year,” McDonald said. “I think it was a different year than past years because you didn’t see me flashing across the screen like you did in past years because a lot of times I was in the box a lot more. I wasn’t coming down from the fifteen yards deep, flashing across the screen making those plays. It was a little different, but I was still went out there and made plays. That’s the name of the game just to make plays, so I feel like I get it done.”
For his career, McDonald played in 50 games with 36 starts and racked up 275 tackles, eight interceptions, 12 tackles for loss and 10 pass breakups.
But what McDonald brings to the table goes well beyond the raw numbers. He was a two-time captain, only the 11th player in USC history to earn that honor twice, joining his father as the only father-son combo to be captains in school history.
McDonald’s leadership ability and football I.Q. are the types of intangibles that remind Fisher of the elder McDonald and should serve him well in his transition to the NFL.
“There are some similarities,” Fisher said. “His dad played a little heavier when we had him than T.J. is now, but T.J. is a fine athlete, long arms. You watch him match up against Tyler Eifert on a couple plays in the Notre Dame game and win. He’s one of those guys that has the cover skills. He sees things. He anticipates. He’s one of those guys that is not just a react player, but he has anticipation. He gets the game. He plays the position well.”
When McDonald reports to St. Louis this week for this weekend’s rookie minicamp, chances are he’ll get his first look at the strong safety spot. Considering the departure of last year’s starters, there’s certainly an opportunity for McDonald to come in and win a starting job right away.
Given McDonald’s understanding of the game and his intelligence, chances are he’ll pick up the defense in short order. He said he’s quite familiar with the talent already in place on the Rams defense and he’s looking forward to the chance to come in and fit in right away.
And though McDonald won’t make any outlandish predictions or statements about being a starter in year one, it’s also not something he plans to shy away from either.
“When you come in, you know you’ve got to compete so I’m going to compete regardless,” McDonald said. “If that spot is there for the taking, my plans are to go in and take it.”