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Just thinking back to this past March we can remember on the South Lawn near the White House with President George W. Bush there stood Florida Gator Ray McDonald and the entire 2006 NCAA Football Championship Florida Gator franchise to accept the highest order of tributes direct from the President himself.
McDonald is the college athlete and football player everyone looks up to and is awe struck by. He has battled through great adversity and personal trials to climb the ultimate ladder to being a contributor to winning the NCAA Football Championship and it was his honor to play to the best of his ability under Florida Gator Head Coach Urban Meyer.
When Mike Nolan made an emphasis on drafting to better the defense in 2007, he wasn't making any mistakes about it. He selected Ray McDonald with the 97th overall pick in the third round out of the University of Florida to be yet another focal point on a defense rapidly evolving into a distinguished unit that will demand your immediate attention.
Ray is well known in Florida as one of the best defensive linemen in the country and he started that reputation out of Glades Central High School. In that school he went on to earn Prep Star and National Blue-chips All-American honors in 2001 and was further highlighted with being named to the Prep Star's Dream Team.
Ray was and still is considered a hybrid type of lineman that has played and excelled in both a defensive tackle and defensive end position. The Prep Star Publication is a nationally recognized source of information for ranking collegiate players and it had him ranked among the top 12 defensive ends inside the United States.
Ray went on to get red-shirted in 2002 and in 2003 he moved inside to defensive tackle with the Florida Gators and was the only the fourth defensive lineman in college history to start as a freshman in the season opener. He went on to win a starting defensive tackle position in 2004 and saw action in 11 games. His highlight in that year was being named SEC Defensive Player of the Week after a season-high seven tackles at Florida State, including career-high two sacks.
When asked about his high-energy motor and his ability to cover a lot of ground as a lineman Ray McDonald replied: "Just hard work. I just don't want to let anyone beat me. It's just me being a competitor. You don't want to let anyone else show you up. I feel like because of that, it's kind of helped me out these last seasons. I just go all the time and coaches like that. I've got to give credit to my coaches because they really pushed me when I first got to Gainesville."
And in 2005 Ray switched positions again going from a tackle to an end during the drills conducted during pre-season. He was the starter inside the first three games before suffering a knee injury that required surgery and sidelined him for three contests. He made a quick jump back in against LSU and Georgia before suddenly re-injuring the knee and requiring season-ending surgery to repair it.
In his senior year in 2006 he took everything he had and applied it to the field. He was a part of history in securing the Florida Gators a national championship in their victory over Ohio State this past year. His range and quickness suddenly exploded on television and out on the field for everyone to see.
He was a starter in every game during his senior season and earned a spot to play in the 2007 Under Armour Senior Bowl that Mike Nolan coached the south team that he was a part of and displayed enough intangibles for Mike Nolan and his subordinates to turn their collective heads and notice. It was from here at the Senior Bowl that Mike Nolan made the conversation with Scot McCloughan about possibly drafting this incredibly gifted athlete that some analysts had going at the bottom of the first round.
During his senior season he lined up at strong-side defensive end before he was asked to shift in the ninth game of the season to nose tackle versus Vanderbilt. He went on to earn All-Southeastern honors, as he was on inventory for 36 tackles (19) solos, three sacks, 4.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and two quarterback pressures. He even went on to return a fumble recovery for a score, managed to block one kick and batted down five total passes.
Overall his collegiate career has been an exciting journey that has led him to becoming a San Francisco 49er. In 46 games while a Gator, McDonald started 36 times. He amassed 137 tackles (85 solos) with 11 sacks for minus 64 yards and 25.5 stops for losses totaling 103 yards. He went on to add six quarterback pressures with two forced fumbles and one on a recovery. He has also deflected seven passes and blocked one kick on top of all that.
"He's a great player and a go-getter," said Joe Cohen, McDonald's comrade on Florida's defensive line who was selected by the 49ers as well in the fourth round. "If you watch film on a lot of defensive players, Ray McDonald probably has the best technique of all of them. He's going to be one of those players that the fans love. (The 49ers) are definitely going to see that."
It was at the 2007 Senior Bowl that Ray McDonald made the best impression on the brain trusts of the San Francisco 49ers along with Patrick Willis and Jason Hill that were also drafted this past April. Nolan came away shaking his head in pleasure before; during and after the game at how mentally tough and quick Ray was while under his guiding hand.
"He's a very talented young man who made a lot of plays and has great quickness,'" Nolan said. "Hopefully, he can be an impact player fairly early for us. He played most of this past season with those (knee issues) and played very well, and we'll see where it goes from here. I think that (knee problem) was why we were able to get him in the third round because he's a very talented player that played extremely well at Florida."
Ray McDonald was drafted for a specific purpose by the 49ers. To improve the anemic pass rush against the quarterback and to corral the running game against them, this was also the mandate of Louisiana State's Melvin Oliver drafted by the 49ers last year in the sixth round 197th overall.
But during an organized team activity just earlier this month Oliver suffered a season-ending injury with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Melvin Oliver was thought to be the real adhesive to the bandage that kept the 49er defense a comparable one to others. He emerged last year during training camp as being one of the top front-seven defenders on the line and forced his way into the starting lineup by the season opener last year.
He became a great defensive breath of fresh air to Mike Nolan who was at odds with then defensive coordinator Billy Davis over what schemes to improvise and whether we should play the 3-4 or the 4-3 defensive alignment from game to game. The 49ers eventually revised their plan to go with the 3-4 and stayed with the 4-3 because of what Melvin offered them along the line in stopping the run.
Melvin Oliver made 14 starts as a rookie, almost all at right defensive end, and finished the season with 50 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery. For a rookie this was unbelievable and I can remember as a spectator the thrill I had at watching this athlete bring back a new source of light to what was a gloomy picture being painted on our defense from one game to the next. The highlight of his season occurred in October when we played against the Oakland Raiders and beat them 34-20.
Within this game Melvin Oliver became the first rookie defensive lineman in the 49ers 61-year history to score a touchdown when he returned a fumble recovery for a score. Oliver was starting to see some stiff competition coming into camp after the 2006 season though and knew he had to up his game more than ever to stay on the starting roster with the defense switching now to the 3-4.
He was before lining up behind Bryant Young on the left side, but was finding that to be a daunting task with the new scheme being implemented, and was even more so because of the realization that Nolan wanted to get the inside of the line bulkier to play within the new 3-4.
With this unfortunate injury to Melvin Oliver, new life is awarded to Ray McDonald in trying to prove his worth and solidify a spot behind potential starters in Ronald Fields and Marques Douglas. Ray McDonald and his comrade in Joe Cohen round out some of the depth on the line with Cohen likely to be a nose tackle back up more than anything. Still the 49ers have some un-drafted free agents in Darius Sanders and Zach Anderson in the mix along the defensive line that are long shots to make the roster this season.
The San Francisco 49ers unsatisfied because of the major loss to Melvin Oliver went out and acquired free agent Philadelphia Eagle defensive tackle Sam Rayburn. Rayburn signed a one-year agreement with the 49ers and will bolster the line behind Bryant Young in the line rotation.
Rayburn, 26, was a key component of the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line for four seasons now. He provides immediate insurance along a line that has high expectations of becoming a recognized force this season inside the division and our conference. Sam, listed at 6-foot-3, 303 pounds, had some interest from Buffalo, Tennessee, New York Giants and New England Patriots when talking to his agent, but chose the 49ers because of being in a new comfort zone.
Sam Rayburn made it on the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie free agent in 2003; he went on to have his very best season in 2004 by accumulating 46 tackles, six sacks and eight quarterback pressures. There was a time back under former 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue that we entertained the idea of trading Terrell Owens for Sam Rayburn right before the 2004 season started.
But instead the Philadelphia Eagles sent us Brandon Whiting, who lasted but just a few games in San Francisco before injuring his knee. Sam Rayburn experienced a less than productive season in 2005 because he was struggling through an elbow injury (35 tackles, one sack) and when you look out on 2006 he barely even played.
A great deal of the reasoning behind this is perceived to be the first round draft picks the Eagles had obtained in Broderick Bunkley and Mike Peterson. Rayburn was shown the bench more and more as the first round draft picks were taking their first licks at the NFL.
The deal with Rayburn offers him a lot of incentive to showcase his abilities and talents as a defensive lineman at a bargain price for one-year in hopes of landing a permanent position right here in San Francisco or in fact moving on to somewhere else. If we don't show interest in Rayburn he will go into the unrestricted free agent pool this next spring.
So all in all he has a lot to play for and to help his cause for a big payday by playing at a top-notch level as a San Francisco 49er where both sides get to benefit from his experience and veteran presence to just step right in and contribute at a high level for all to see.
Mike Nolan likes the lineman's toughness and he fits in to where he projects the 49ers defensive line to be within this coming season. Rayburn exhibits the prototypical lineman that fits the mold of being a rugged, run-plugging player, who has the ability to occupy blockers that will allow the linebackers in the new 3-4 alignments to make the tackles.
Thus the San Francisco 49er defensive line should have plenty of depth to wet the immense appetite of every defensive coach in the NFL, with the specialty roles they all can provide defensive coordinator Greg Manusky who will have ample elbowroom and mounds of versatility to play a resounding game of chess with almost anyone.
Ronald Fields, rookie Ray McDonald and free agent newcomer Sam Rayburn are all available to help fill in the gaps at the ends behind Bryant Young and Marques Douglas. The 49ers have even more in an experiment they have conducted with another player that they have added in Damane Duckett who was on the defensive line before trying him out as an offensive tackle just before the team's May mini-camp in order for him to have a better shot at making the final roster cuts that are coming soon.
Here is the tale of the tape on Florida's Ray McDonald who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 282-pounds and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.85. He is an athlete that will push for playing time behind Ronald Fields and Sam Rayburn. He will probably make a distinct mark on special teams with his many gifts that will encourage coaches to test his armor for more playing time.
Positives: Short, stout frame for a defensive end, but with long arms and room to grow. Capable of playing either end or tackle at the next level. Improved his quickness off the snap and use of hands to defeat the block this season. Gives good effort in pursuit and has the strength and athletic ability to break down and make the tackle.
Negatives: He is a bit of a "tweener," as he lacks the prototypical speed off the edge to play defensive end and isn't the classic run stuffer inside for the middle. Lacks the strength to consistently hold up to the double team and doesn't play with enough leverage. Suffered two knee injuries in 2005, each requiring surgery, and an elbow injury in the SEC title game.
Overall: McDonald is versatile and can play anywhere on the defensive line in certain defenses, but is best to play outside.
All that I know is that Ray McDonald is a defensive lineman that displays class and tenacity all in one. He has dealt with gut-wrenching pain before after playing through multiple injuries and he has been a big part at helping his teammates achieve the impossible dream of winning a championship.
This guy fits the Mike Nolan profile of being a good football player with good character and an intuition to play the game, as it was his last. The defense will only benefit by his presence and his contributions and I'm looking forward to having this Florida Gator take a bite out of the enemy.
Sources of Information: SF Illustrated, Sporting News Pro Football Draft Publication, SF Gate, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.