Safety T.J. McDonald is one player the Los Angeles Rams should consider bringing back in 2017.

With free agency looming, the Rams will need to determine who from that group is worthy of being on their list of targeted players. Trumaine Johnson should be their No. 1. Somewhere on that list should be T.J. McDonald.

With the replacement of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with Wade Phillips. The addition brings one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever seen. It also brings a 3-4 defense, a scheme that has proved powerful with past teams. 

Transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 will likely see benefits to many, and lack thereof for others. McDonald, should he be offered a competitive contract, could be one of those players who benefits.

McDonald, the Rams’ 3rd-round pick in 2013, was billed to have the potential as an elite safety. Since then, he’s yielded mixed results, excelling in run coverage and delivering bone-crushing hits. But his pass-coverage has been nothing to write home about.

During the second half of the 2015 season, McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ highest rated safety. Since then, he’s only been mediocre-to-below mediocre. As a looming free agent, the Rams are probably wondering if they can get anything more from McDonald, or if they can get anything better in free agency.

How Wade Phillips Has Utilized Safeties

While he hasn’t been the best, and certainly hasn’t done enough to warrant a long-term deal, Wade Phillips is known for getting the most out of his players.  With the quality of play he got from T.J. Ward in Denver and Glover Quin in Houston, keeping the USC alumni for at least another season wouldn’t be the worst decision.

Phillips is adamant in the philosophy of adapting his scheme to better fit the players he has been given. Denver and Houston employed 4-3 schemes prior to Phillips’ hiring. Those defenses became one of the top defenses overall under Phillips.

Take for example, Denver’s T.J. Ward. In Super Bowl 50, and Denver’s Opening Day game last season, Ward’s work in the 3-4 scheme could be similar to what we could see in McDonald.

Often, Ward was placed underneath between the sam linebacker and the left cornerback, as is the case with many 3-4 schemes. In doing this, the safety isn’t covering deep as he would be in another scheme.

The run coverage and hard hitting tendency of Ward was used to its full potential. By playing that close, it’s easier to get the safety to the ball carrier on run plays. Having McDonald being able to regularly play closer to the line with Aaron Donald disrupting plays as he always has could result in a deadly run defense.

This is similar to how Phillips used Glover Quin in Houston, although Quin is a more balanced safety than Ward and McDonald. He was able to have more variety in where he was played.

“The better player you have, the more latitude you have,” Phillips said in a video explaining the basics of the concept.

While McDonald has been far from a great player, and his skills have hurt the team more often than one would like, if any coach can get the most out of McDonald in the 3-4 scheme, it’s Wade Phillips. Phillips has coached in the NFL for over 30 years. He’s coached some of the greatest defenders to play the game and he’s been able to get the most out of mediocre players.