New York Jets safety Bradley McDougald has made a career out of being the other guy or the fallback option, going back to college recruiting. Once again in his football life, he is playing the role of afterthought -- the perceived throw-in to the Jamal Adams trade with the Seattle Seahawks.
That notion prompted a chuckle from Charlie Weis, who coached McDougald in his final season at the University of Kansas and theorized (correctly) that McDougald wasn't a last-minute "ask" by Jets general manager Joe Douglas.
"This wasn't Kevin Costner in 'Draft Day,'" Weis said in a phone interview, referring to the fictitious GM and his on-the-clock wheeling and dealing in the 2014 film. "Joe Douglas knew exactly what he was asking for."
The Jets targeted McDougald because, even though he doesn't possess Adams' youth and elite physical traits, he is a proven starter whose overachieving mentality has allowed him to overcome long odds throughout his career. He was undrafted out of Kansas and cut twice by his first team, the Kansas City Chiefs, yet he has managed to start 78 games, including three in the postseason.
Those who know McDougald describe him as a "glue" player, hard-working and team-oriented. And his production is sneaky good -- five straight seasons of at least 70 tackles and five interceptions over the past two.
"He'll be the forgotten player because everybody is talking about Jamal Adams," said Weis, a former longtime NFL assistant. "He'll step in as a starter, and all those things that people complained about at the end -- Jamal going against the head coach and the media and all that stuff -- Bradley is just the opposite of that.
"This is going to be a very, very good pickup for the Jets, not just as a replacement for Jamal Adams, but to improve the chemistry in the building. Chemistry is greatly undervalued. All of a sudden, you've got a team guy coming in."
When he received a welcome-to-the-team call from Douglas, McDougald made sure to ask for the cell numbers of coach Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, among others. He wanted to reach out and tell them he was ready to go to work.
McDougald, 29, admitted he was "kind of stunned" by the July 25 trade, which also included Seattle's 2021 and 2022 first-round picks. "I felt abandoned, like they just kicked me out, like they didn't care about me or valued me there."
That feeling didn't last long. He quickly spun it into a positive, rationalizing it this way: The Jets want me to replace their best player.
Been there, done that.
When the Seahawks' celebrated "Legion of Boom" secondary started crumbling in 2017 and 2018, with injuries to safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, they turned to McDougald to alternate between free and strong safety. Coach Pete Carroll, who can evaluate defensive backs as well as anyone, thought enough of McDougald to reward him with a three-year, $14 million contract in 2018.
"Super smart and he makes plays," said former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a member of the 2018 Seahawks. "A lot of these guys can't make plays. The ball is in the air, they drop the damn interception, they miss the tackle or they make mental errors. That's not him. He's a solid, solid, solid player. The year I was there, he was having a borderline Pro Bowl year. He's that good."
McDougald will draw the spotlight because he's replacing an All-Pro, but do you really think he will be intimidated by the Adams factor after taking over for Chancellor and Thomas in Seattle? Come on. Adams won individual honors; Chancellor and Thomas forged a championship legacy.
"This isn't me being here to replace Jamal," he said. "This is me here as a fresh start, just the same way I couldn't be Kam and I couldn’t be Earl, but I still found my way to be successful. It's the same way with this."
McDougald describes himself as humble, yet he projects an unmistakable air of confidence. He's not afraid to do it his way. A high-school star in Columbus, Ohio, he backed out of a verbal commitment to Ohio State because he was a "last-offer guy" and was told by the coaches that he would have to take a red-shirt year. He felt he was good enough to play right away, so he decided to blow off his hometown school. That took chutzpah.
"I really felt I could add value to a program right then and there," he said. "I never let a school define me or a big name define who I was."
He ventured off to Kansas and enrolled at the perennial Big-12 doormat, winning only 11 games in four seasons. Weis, hired for McDougald's senior year (2012), immediately identified him as an NFL-caliber player and notified his NFL contacts about his potential. It wasn't enough to get him drafted, but he landed a free-agent contract with the Chiefs. He eventually got to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he became a full-time starter in 2015.
"One of my biggest strengths is my cover skills," McDougald said. "I like to match up on the other team's best tight end and follow him around, and try to be as disruptive as possible. I've had some success against some of the biggest-name tight ends in the game."
Now he joins a new conference, another stop on his football journey. He goes from a winner to a loser, but he sees the silver lining.
"As an undrafted kid," McDougald said, "this is all you ever wanted -- an opportunity to go and play and prove yourself."