As the 49ers sort through their free agents when the lockout ends, Ray McDonald has gone from being a bit of an afterthought in free agency to potentially ending up fairly high on the team's wish list. The 49ers will be looking to secure several key free agents and it sounds like McDonald is interested in making that happen. Naturally it will come down to some sign from the 49ers that they are prepared to give him a shot at a starting role.
We've previously discussed the possibility of McDonald taking over the left defensive end position if Isaac Sopoaga moves into the nose tackle role (assuming Aubrayo Franklin departs as just about everybody now expects). The question will be if he can be a complete package at defensive end. The 49ers have a fantastic right defensive end in Justin Smith and it would be a nice little perk to have a left defensive end that is solid top to bottom. I don't think Sopoaga has been a bad defensive end, but the upside has not been all that high.
With McDonald, the 49ers have a guy who has proven he can be a beast when it comes to pressuring the QB. If he can convert some of those pressures into sacks, all the better. In Branch's article McDonald mentioned the ribbing he gets for the pressures when he can't quite get to the quarterback. Is that just a matter of circumstance and he'll eventually start getting those sacks? Maybe an issue with the Manusky defense more than anything else?
Beyond the pass rush, the mystery would be his work against the run, as Barrows pointed out. He's been primarily used in the pass rush so he hasn't been quite as involved in stopping the run. While we don't know much about his run stopping ability in the NFL, I did find an old scouting report at NN after the 49ers drafted McDonald. We spoke with our old Florida Gators blog and coming out of the draft they liked his overall game:
While McDonald may not have flashy size or athleticism, he is deceptively quick and has a great nose for the football -- and he's versatile. While we would see him primarily as an end at the pro level (he may not have the skill-set and size to play tackle in the NFL), he can bring a lot to the table, whether it's holding his ground in the running game or getting to the quarterback with his quickness around the end. And at any point he could bulk up and has experience at DT as well.
Now we'll just wait and see what free agency brings and whether McDonald remains with the 49ers. Barrows made an interesting point at the end of his column (linked above) when he said this would symbolize the transformation from Manusky's stop the run defense to Vic Fangio's expected pass rush defense. Our knowledge of what Fangio brings to the table remains fairly limited, but it seems likely to be more aggressive than what we've observed the past few years. Maybe it will benefit McDonald and help him make a bigger impact if he comes back as a starter.