There are many different categories of draft prospects. There are some who immediately jump off the screen as obvious top picks with dominant play in college.
There are others whose tape does not match up to their level of recognition as a potential star pro, and there are those whose qualities go unnoticed until late in the process or even until they make a surprising impact at the highest level.
Then there are those whose talents were clearly misused at the college level, damaging their hopes of being selected with a premium pick.
Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV unquestionably slots into the latter group.
McDonald is an edge rusher. Be in no doubt about that. At 6ft 3in and 241 pounds, his best position is lined up on the edge with a chance to use his physical gifts, and predominantly his speed, to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
Instead, he spent his college career with the Cyclones, which spanned five seasons, cast in a role that predominantly saw him play as a 4i or 5-technique on Iowa State’s three-man front.
The defense Iowa State runs, as SB Nation’s Joseph Acosta explained in his breakdown, is an offshoot of the traditional 3-3-5 and has been key in the program’s rise to prominence under head coach Matt Campbell, one which – prior to a 4-8 campaign in 2022 – had seen it record five straight winning seasons.
While it has allowed Iowa State to find consistent success, it is not one that plays to the strengths of McDonald.
Yet, McDonald still managed to tally 34 sacks in college, posting double-digit sack seasons in 2020 (10.5) and 2021 (11.5) and, though he could arguably have been even more productive in a scheme better suited to his skill set, his time spent on Iowa State’s three-man front may intrigue a 49ers team that will likely be seeking inside-out versatility on the defensive line this offseason.
Filling a versatility void
Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder Jr. each provided significant value to the Niners last season through their ability to excel playing off the edge and on the interior of the line. Both Omenihu and Hyder are set to enter unrestricted free agency, along with edge rushers Samson Ebukam and Jordan Willis.
San Francisco will look to keep as many of that group as possible, but the 49ers’ room for maneuver is limited given the relative lack of salary cap space, meaning there will be departures up front.
Adding depth at edge and defensive tackle is a priority for the 49ers this offseason and, while they won’t necessarily want to rely on players who can occupy both spots, having a pass rusher who has demonstrated the flexibility to provide quality snaps playing on the edge and on the inside on a rookie contract could be a tremendous asset for the Niners as they aim to keep their defense at the top of the NFL.
The upside McDonald displayed in college could go a long way to convincing the 49ers he is a man they should be targeting to help them strengthen the D-Line in the draft.
Pass rush diversity
His opportunities to thrive as an edge rusher were limited by the Iowa State scheme, but McDonald consistently took advantage of those chances when they came, winning by utilizing his bend and lower-body flexibility to turn the corner and efficiently flatten his rush to the quarterback while often pivoting to an extremely effective spin move on plays where he got to the top of his rush having failed to get around the edge.
McDonald’s usage of that spin move points to a player who has more weapons in his arsenal than sheer athleticism, and the most underrated aspect of his game is his hand usage, which was critical to him having joy rushing inside and out at Iowa State.
The Kansas State game last season another impressive one for Will McDonald IV. Winning with the rip move, turning the corner to beat the LT for one sack and then displaying closing speed as a free rusher for his second. pic.twitter.com/O0h6fZUORL— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 2, 2023
Indeed, McDonald possesses fast and powerful hands and uses them intelligently as part of a varied plan of attack. The swipe and rip moves are a feature of his repertoire, along with the club-swim. Just as important as how he incorporates his hands into his pass rush plan is McDonald’s ability to marry his feet with his upper body.
McDonald has shown an understanding of the importance of attacking ‘half a man’. In other words, rushing just one shoulder of the opposing pass protector rather than the entire breadth of his frame.
On the play below, McDonald exposed the right tackle’s inside shoulder by selling an outside rush with a jab step, enabling him to easily win his rush to the inside with a swipe move.
Will McDonald IV using the little jab step to open the RT's inside shoulder. Easy win inside with the swipe. pic.twitter.com/CzSJxYN83K— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 2, 2023
Demonstrating explosiveness when he has the chance to build up speed as a pass rusher, McDonald’s potential influence as a bull-rusher was restricted by the amount of time he spent lined up in close proximity to the offensive line as a 4i or a 5.
Iowa State was blown out by TCU, but Will McDonald IV still shone. Won inside and out with his hand usage, showed the ability to transform speed to power and the lower-body flexibility to turn the corner and flatten to the QB. pic.twitter.com/X7VQCrBGDK— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 2, 2023
Operating in such tight quarters did allow McDonald to regularly shine in run defense, where McDonald’s length came to the fore, allowing him to disengage from blocks and find the football.
A runway for consistency
Locating the ball-carrier was rarely an issue for McDonald in college, who did an excellent job of reading the mesh point and trusting his eyes when guarding against the threat of the quarterback run, a trait that should carry great importance for a 49er defense that has endured struggles defending mobile signal-callers.
McDonald reaped the rewards of playing with leverage in the run game, but his consistency in doing so as a pass rusher too often did not yield the same dividends due to him being forced to operate in a capacity he was ill-equipped to fill.
Plays that saw a McDonald pass rush from a 4i or 5-tech alignment quickly stall were frequent in his college career, illustrating the point that he is a defender who requires a runway that offers him the chance to convert speed to power to be an impactful bull rusher regularly.
Some run defense work from Will McDonald IV. Can hold his own against OL who have a size advantage and consistently use his arm length to disengage from blocks and find the football. pic.twitter.com/nQ6zSjVy8i— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 2, 2023
Landing with a 49ers team that employs the Wide 9 defensive front would see McDonald afforded such a runway, and a possible selection by the Niners would also pair him with the defensive line coach in Kris Kocurek, who is arguably the best prospective candidate to harness his obvious room to grow.
From the 49ers’ perspective, they would get a high-ceiling prospect who offers the versatility they prize on the defensive front and has experience in a defense they may use in 2023, with new coordinator Steve Wilks having played the 3-3-5 – albeit sparingly – during his stint with the Carolina Panthers in 2022.
McDonald may have been an awkward fit for the Iowa State defense, but his presence as a square peg occupying a round hole for the Cyclones did not cloud the image of what he could become at the highest level in the right system.
San Francisco has the right system and a clear need for a player of his multiplicity. After he made the most of an imperfect situation in college, the 49ers project as an obvious fit for McDonald to realize his potential at the highest level.