S TJ McDonald, Rams (6’3 | 219 | 26) – The Bears added a solid coverage safety in Quintin Demps, but still need a safety who can make an impact against the run. McDonald has had an up-and-down career so far, filled with highlight reel plays and devastating mistakes in coverage.
Last season was McDonald’s best so far with way less coverage gaffes and his usual hard-hitting impact against the run. At only 26, McDonald is just scratching the surface of his potential. He was forced into a starting role well before he was ready and predictably had plenty of struggles in coverage. Last season McDonald finally showed the ability to be consistent against both the run and pass, which is a promising sign for his NFL future.
The former 3rd round pick out of USC in 2013, has been a starter since week one of his rookie season and has improved steadily every year. He has elite length and power for a safety with enough speed (4.54) to run with most receivers. All the physical tools are there for McDonald to be a quality NFL safety but it’s taken him awhile to adapt to pass-heavy NFL attacks.
2016 was McDonald’s best season so far with 62 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, and six pass deflections. Pro Football Focus graded McDonald as the 23rd best coverage safety which is the highest he’s finished in his young career. He’s also been healthy with 16 starts last season and 53 over the last four years.
McDonald has some warts, primarily in coverage but also a tendency to head-hunt and miss tackles, but he’s coming off his best season against the pass. He has the size and aggressiveness to be a force against run as an in-the-box safety, but showed for the first time last year that he can play single-high as well. Bears DC Vic Fangio has always preferred versatile safeties who can play near the line or deep and McDonald is just starting to flash that kind of potential.
He also has the ball skills that are badly needed in the Bears secondary, McDonald has only four interceptions in four years with the Rams, but had eight picks in three years as a starter at USC. McDonald could give the Bears an enforcer over the middle, which they haven’t had in about 20 years, improve the run defense, and be an asset in coverage if last season wasn’t a fluke. He’s also only 26, so could be a long-term starter for the Bears on an affordable contract.
The hold-up in McDonald finding a new team is likely due to the fact that teams are looking to pay him as an in-the-box only safety, while his agent is probably pushing for something closer to Micah Hyde’s 5/$30M deal. Maybe the Bears can find a middle ground with McDonald. similar to the 3/$13.5M deal that DJ Swearinger got from the Redskins.
If the Bears can add McDonald on an affordable contract, then he could team with solid veteran Quintin Demps and give the Bears a safety combo that can both stop the run and make plays in coverage. Between the two of them, they forced more turnovers than all of the Bears secondary combined last season.