Draft day started early for the New York Jets, with the player they wanted most this offseason already on the practice field.
Aaron Rodgers was out there, throwing the ball around, and a few seconds of slow motion video had garnered three million views on social media by Thursday night. The new Rodgers Jets jersey was selling wildly, as were season tickets. The Jets had already won, long before the names started coming off the board.
There was a price to be paid for landing such a superstar, though, and about 12 hours after Rodgers' throwing session, it became clear what the price was. As part of their crusade to acquire Rodgers, the Jets agreed to swap first-round picks with the Green Bay Packers -- it was one of the final elements to be agreed upon, general manager Joe Douglas had revealed -- and that two-slot drop to 15th overall cost the Jets a shot at one of the top offensive tackles in the draft. When the Pittsburgh Steelers leapfrogged the Jets and took Broderick Jones with the 14th overall pick, the idea of immediately solidifying the shaky offensive line in front of Rodgers was dashed.
The Jets pivoted to reinforce their already stellar defense by selecting the freakishly-athletic edge rusher, Will McDonald IV. McDonald is a pure pass rusher and he had 34 total sacks for Iowa State, where he lined up on the edge in a dominant 2021 (11.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles) and more frequently rushed from inside in 2022 (5 sacks). McDonald only started playing football as a high school junior, so he is likely not fully formed and the Jets are already talking about his need to put on weight.
McDonald was not expected to be selected so high, although the Jets love his length and his elite ability to bend around the edge. Head coach Robert Saleh compared his skill set to Randy Gregory and Brian Burns. He can also jump over a car, but as he develops into a more well-rounded player and adds weight, the Jets will have to hope that Douglas' hot drafting hand carried over from last season’s bonanza, and that Rodgers' movement is still so good that the Jets won't regret missing out on one of the tackle prospects. Tackle Mekhi Becton, a first-round pick two years ago, is also slated to return from a knee injury in 2023, and the team still has faith in the 24-year-old's health and development.
Why pick a player at a position where the Jets already enjoy enviable depth? Rodgers' presence played into the Jets' thinking that they will need fresh legs in their pass rush rotation to go after quarterbacks -- the heads of the snake, Saleh calls them -- who are forced to pass because they are playing from behind.
"You know how we play -- we come at you in waves," Saleh said. "We dress 10 guys on game day. With Aaron here, hopefully we're playing with a few more leads."
McDonald is from Wisconsin and while he was not a Green Bay Packers fan, he said he is an Aaron Rodgers fan, which means he will fit right into a franchise that is giddy over its new centerpiece.
"It's a dream come true," McDonald said. "Being able to be around his mindset and how he works. I want to be around all that positivity."
There has been plenty of that around the Jets this week. Douglas was asked late Thursday if he must find an offensive lineman in the later rounds, and he would only say the Jets will not force a pick. The Jets, he said, will always take the best available player. The McDonald pick certainly proved that.
The Jets are all-in for a Super Bowl while Rodgers is here, and that may make the pick of McDonald seem like a luxury. Perhaps it will be in his first year, when he likely will be used in select spots. But McDonald can do what the Jets will need if they are to make a deep playoff run -- attack the gauntlet of elite quarterbacks who will stand in their way in the AFC.
McDonald may not be the player everyone wanted for the Jets in the first round and he does not address their most pressing need. But the Jets had already used their first-round pick to get the player they needed most.