What History Tells Us: Predicting Cole McDonald’s Fantasy Football Outlook

by Alex Kurpeski @3COAK

A true wild card, McDonald was one of the biggest risers from the NFL Combine, running a surprisingly swift 4.5 forty yard dash while looking competent when put through passing drills. Rarely would we think twice about such a late round pick, as most passers taken in the fifth round and beyond are drafted with the intention to one day be started by the team that took them. While it’s possible that McDonald is not the exception to this rule, his athletic upside combined with the gaudy passing numbers he put up at Hawaii make him an intriguing understudy to Ryan Tannehill down in Tennessee. 


Hawaii’s offense was catered specifically to many of McDonald’s strengths as a passer. He was the starter for the program in both 2018 and 2019, putting up some pretty impressive digits:




  • 3,875 passing yards
  • 298.07 YPG
  • 58.9% completion rate
  • 484 passing attempts
  • 146.5 QB rating
  • 8.0 YPA, 8.6 AYPA
  • 36 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions




  • 4,135 passing yards (+260 yards)
  • 295.35 YPG (-2.28 YPG)
  • 63.8% completion rate (+4.9%)
  • 511 passing attempts (+27 attempts)
  • 147.6 QB rating (+1.1 points)
  • 8.1 YPA, 8.2 AYPA (+0.1 YPA, -0.5 AYPA)
  • 33 passing touchdowns, 14 interceptions (-3 TDs, +4 INTs)


In some ways, McDonald was a better passer during his first season as the starter, as his air yards per attempt, passing yards per game, and touchdown to interception ratio all regressed. But what stood out to me was the fact that McDonald improved his completion rate by almost 5%, showing increased poise in the pocket while also throwing fewer 50/50 balls. 


At 6’4, 220 lbs, McDonald has the ideal size teams look for in a franchise QB, while also possessing the elite arm strength that many scouts will lose their minds over. McDonald completed 9 passes of 40+ yards in 2019, the best mark in the NCAA, never being afraid to show off his cannon. McDonald has moments that make you question his decision making, but when he’s in rhythm he can really zip throws into tight windows with high level accuracy. Say what you will about Air Raid offenses, but they definitely give their QBs a chance to show off their goods. 


While there’s a lot to work with when it comes to McDonald’s physical skills, the mental side of playing the QB position is often questioned when watching his game tape. Many times during his junior year, McDonald was benched due to some abominably bad throws into heavy coverage, most of which came on plays that forced him to improvise. Moreover, his experience playing in an offense that deployed 4+ receivers on every passing down did not prepare him to play in a more traditionally structured NFL offense (especially one as old school as the Titans’ scheme). 


With McDonald, the highs are quite enjoyable. The young gunslinger finished 14th in the nation with 1,103 deep passing yards, 7th in big time throws (31), and third in ADOT (12.4), metrics that speak to his willingness to chuck the ball. Thanks to Hawaii’s vertical passing offense, McDonald threw for only 226 screen passing yards, as he was never the type to pick up cheap yardage through the air. The lows for MacDonald are quite worrisome however, as evidenced by his 29 turnover worthy plays in 2019. Should his troubles with reading defenses persist in the NFL, McDonald’s time in the league will be very brief. 


cole mcdonald 2


It would be unfair to compare McDonald to a guy like Gardner Minshew, a late round pick who showed out in the NFL following a breakout season as the starter on an Air Raid offense. Unlike Minshew, McDonald’s decision-making is leagues away from where it needs to be in order for him to find success as a starter in the NFL. Pro Football Focus has compared him to another Air Raid descendant, former Baylor standout Bryce Petty. Here’s how the two players stack up:


Cole McDonald:


  • Overall Passing Grade: 79.1
  • Average Depth of Target: 12.15
  • AIR%: 68.3%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 68.2%


Bryce Petty:


  • Overall Passing Grade: 83.5
  • Average Depth of Target: 12.15
  • AIR%: 61.7%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 71.1%


I don’t love this comparison, as I feel like these two players have very different styles as passers, with McDonald offering much more as a rusher as well. I think there’s a vast swath of possibilities for McDonald as a fantasy asset, should he ever be called into action by the Titans. While their current offense is structured very differently from the one that made McDonald a known commodity, it is catered to a similarly athletic passer (Tannehill) while featuring an elite offensive line and a running game to take the edge off of the passer. 


While the Air Raid/Run and Shoot style of offense has elevated many collegiate passers to become NFL ready passers (Minshew, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes) it has also masked many a passer’s deficiencies, which have been exposed once they reach the pros (Will Grier, Luke Falk, Petty, Geno Smith, Johnny Manziel). 


Pro Comparison:


Ceiling: Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

mitch trubisky

The best case scenario for a guy like McDonald would be for him to renounce the instincts that he has learned from the high volume passing offense that made him a star in college and instead focus on becoming a better short and intermediate passer who can hurt a defense with his legs on option plays and scrambles. Like Trubisky, McDonald is a special athlete at the QB position, one who could definitely be a franchise passer if developed properly. 


Floor: Will Grier, Carolina Panthers


An Air Raid product who does not look nearly as good without 2-3 extra receivers on the field. Weaknesses are exposed almost immediately, leaving McDonald on the roster bubble. 


Median: Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks

Geno smith 1

A tremendously gifted athlete who simply lacks to focus and mental rigor to become a startable NFL passer. Upside keeps him employed for a while, but ultimately proves to be little more than a third stringer. 

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