(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)
S T.J. McDonald
Height, weight: 6-2, 223
Experience: Sixth season, second with Dolphins
Acquired: As unrestricted free agent in March 2017
Contract: Received a four-year, $24.1 million contract last season
Pro Football Focus rank: 59th out of 120
Stats: 8 games played, 45 tackles, one interception
Notable moments: Made nine tackles in Dolphins debut, vs. Carolina in November. … Intercepted Trevor Siemian on first possession of Denver game. … Made seven tackles in home victory over New England.
Straight talk: Even though he made an instant impact when inserted into the lineup midway through last season, T.J. McDonald walked away in January thinking about what could have been.
“Not being able to help my team in the first eight weeks definitely was hard — the hardest part of the year for me,” said McDonald, who served an eight-game NFL suspension stemming from a DUI arrest. “Then coming back, being in a new scheme, hopping in the middle of something — it was just a little different.”
He wondered what it would have been like if he had a full season next to Reshad Jones, another hard-hitting safety who’s a Pro Bowl talent. He was already looking forward to the 2018 season, when he could “hit the ground running.”
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Matt Burke said he’d consider using McDonald more often in a hybrid safety/linebacker role. The wrinkle, Burke pointed out, is if you slide McDonald into the box, someone has to be back there filling the spot he vacated.
Then, two things happened that further muddied the picture.
First, the Dolphins drafted Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first round, fueling speculation he could be that someone filling the vacant spot and triggering a move of McDonald to linebacker.
Finally, when coach Adam Gase was asked about all this, he flat-out said, “T.J. is playing safety. If we have to make adjustments somewhere. … He’s not moving to linebacker. He’s going to be a safety and then we’re going to figure out a way to get our best 11 players on the field.”
So a year ago, the Dolphins and McDonald were in getting-to-know-you mode and today, there’s still an element of that. What’s clear is that Jones, McDonald and Fitzpatrick are among the 11 best defensive players, so one option is a three-safety formation, which also would eliminate guesswork as to who will be the third linebacker next to Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan.
“There may be some three-safety packages where they’re all on the field together,” Burke said. “There may be times where T.J. and Reshad are a better grouping for us or Minkah and Reshad are a better grouping for us or something else. I don’t know. I think our challenge, again, as a coaching staff, is to get the best feel for how to utilize those guys best — what each of their strengths are — so when we get into a game-plan situation, ‘Hey, this guy is better at doing this,’ or, ‘We can put all these guys and maybe use this guy this way,’ or that sort of thing.”
McDonald contributed in 2017 but measured his words in assessing his play.
“Eh,” he said. “My first game back, that was the most comfortable I was, just because I was playing off of adrenaline and so excited to come back.”
But McDonald, who made nine tackles in that game against the Panthers, hedged when asked if he felt uncomfortable as the season wore on.
“I was playing more stress-free” early, he said.
Prospects for 2018
Since the Dolphins have two divisional games in the first month of the season, they might be exceptionally vanilla in August to avoid tipping their hand, but a storyline to watch in camp will be how this three-headed safety rotation plays out.
McDonald said he arrived at Dolphins camp feeling he had to prove himself and had only eight games in which to do it. After the season, he said he was looking forward to starting fresh.
“Just having a clear head,” he said.
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