The off-season additions of veteran Sheldon Brown and first-round draft pick Joe Haden pushed McDonald down the cornerback depth chart and put his roster spot in jeopardy. He responded with a renewed focus.
He looked solid throughout the first week of training camp while working with the second-team defense. He then made the play of the day in Saturday’s scrimmage by baiting rookie Colt McCoy into an interception and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown.
“I don’t really feel I have anything to prove,” McDonald said Saturday. “I just wanted to come out there and show them I have big expectations for myself, and I won’t settle for anything less than being one of the best guys out there.”
As a fifth-round pick out of Memphis in 2007, not much was expected from McDonald. He immediately opened eyes with his athleticism, earned a roster spot, became a key special teams contributor and started two games.
He became a full-time starter in 2008, led the Browns with five interceptions and looked like he’d team with Eric Wright as the starting cornerbacks for years. Then came 2009.
McDonald returned as a starter, but struggled in coverage and with his tackling, which was supposed to be a strength. He was demoted after three games, started five more and was benched again in favor of journeyman Mike Adams. He finished the season with 10 starts, 47 tackles, an interception and 10 passes defensed.
“It was an up and a down season for me,” McDonald said. “I wasn’t very consistent.” Upgrading the cornerback position had become the team’s No. 1 priority, and McDonald was the reason.
New general manager Tom Heckert traded with his old team, the Eagles, for Brown but decided that wasn’t enough. So the seventh pick in the draft, and $26 million guaranteed, was spent on Haden. Wright is cemented as the No. 1 corner, so McDonald is no higher than fourth.
He should make the team, but is battling with the versatile Adams for playing time in extra-defensive back packages and isn’t guaranteed to make the team. Talk about being lost in the shuffle.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to it,” McDonald said. “My main focus is to help this football team in whatever way I can.
“I never think about being finished. I’m here to play. I’m here to compete, and every time I’m out there on that field my focus is going to be to do my job, regardless of whether I’m first-string or fifth-string. I’m going to play just as hard, it doesn’t really matter.”
There isn’t anything spectacular about McDonald. He’s a tad undersized at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds and doesn’t have top-end speed.
But he’s got good short-area quickness and isn’t afraid to mix it up. Those assets are useful as a nickelback working in the slot. He spent the offseason trying to be more physical at the line of scrimmage.
“That’s basically where you’re going to win your oneon- one matchups,” he said. “I worked a lot on that.
“I stayed in the books, just trying to make sure I know what to do, that way I could play a lot faster. I’m already prepared for whatever they throw at us.”
McDonald used his awareness to get the pick Saturday. The defense changed to a cover-2 before the snap, he jammed Syndric Steptoe at the line and dropped into his zone. McCoy never saw him, but McDonald was waiting to drop back and pounce.
“Brandon’s had a really good camp and I think that he put himself in nice position on that play,” coach Eric Mangini said. “I think that competition in any group is a really good thing and we’ve got a competitive group of corners.
“They’re all working to make the team. They are all working for play time and nobody’s going to give that up easily. That’s a positive thing.”
McDonald denied having a chip on his shoulder and said his role is still being determined and that he’ll accept whatever he earns. He talked to reporters in a bright orange T-shirt that read: Brandon McDonald 22 AKA Mr. ITS TRU.
He’s adapted “It’s Tru” as his saying, and the shirts are available on his website, www.bmacfootballcamp.com /store. Despite his struggles, confidence has never been a problem.
“I don’t think he’s going out there trying to prove anything, because he knows what he can do,” Adams said. “He has a swagger out there, his confidence is so high, and it’s always been like that. He’s still competing every play, so I tip my hat to him.”
“Just being able to be out here and be in the NFL, that’s a privilege for me,” McDonald said. “It’s a blessing for me to even be out here, so I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity.”
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