Where he fits in: Ray McDonald

Is Ray McDonald really a first-round talent whose creaky left knee turned him into a chancy third-rounder? Will he push past the fragility of the joint to make an impact on the 49ers' defensive line rotation as a rookie? Or will the University of Florida product be forced to undergo another surgery that will have him miss the 2007 season altogether?

While McDonald did not appear at the 49ers' May minicamp to be at all encumbered by a left knee that required two surgeries in 2005, both McDonald and the team are leaving open the possibility that he could have another surgery on the knee, which sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in Florida's 2005 season.

McDonald came back to play again in that season before hurting the knee again. After another surgery, he came back strong to play his entire senior season last year, even though his knee still was not completely healthy. He also had problems with his right knee last year.

He'll need his knees to be healthy to reach his potential at the NFL level. But even at something less than full strength, McDonald was effective as a versatile core player on Florida's national-championship defense, and his skills fit in well to be a true end in the 3-4 scheme the 49ers will make their base defense this year.

Considered one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the draft - even though he played anywhere from nose tackle to end along Florida's defensive line - McDonald fell all the way from the bottom of the first round to the bottom of the third because of concerns about his knees.

"I know it's a business and a lot of teams didn't want to take me because of my knees and they want to protect their investment," McDonald said. "But I'm happy the 49ers are giving me a chance to come in there and show them I can play some football. I think it was my injuries (why he slipped to the third round), but I'm not worried about that because I know I'm going to play next (season)."

Said 49ers coach Mike Nolan, "Ray has had an injury, but we're aware of it. He played the past season with (it) and played very well, and we'll see where it goes from there, as far as whether he needs a surgery down the road. We gave Ray a (physical) again, I think we were pretty confident about what we were going to get out of the medical. We were hoping to get something better than what we got, and eventually it might need to be fixed if that's the case."

With a clean bill of health, McDonald could challenge for playing time at right end, where the team currently has three starters from its 2006 line scheduled to vie for snaps - Ronnie Fields, Marques Douglas (who both started at tackle in the team's 4-3) and Melvin Oliver (who started 14 games at end as a rookie).

McDonald also has the quickness to play inside when the 49ers go to their defensive sub-packages on passing downs.

"Ray's a very talented young man who made a lot of plays and has great quickness," Nolan said. "He can give us pass rush. He plays with great leverage and tremendous quickness. He is off the ball quick into someone. It's like a boxer, that jab comes real quick and that guy can't defend it."

The 49ers want to place McDonald at right end because that's the side they envision to get the most pass rush among their three front linemen. McDonald also could be groomed to understudy Bryant Young at left end, where the other holdover ends from last year also are likely to see some time in the rotation.

"He has a chance to become a very productive player in this league," 49ers personnel chief Scot McCloughan said. "What we like about him is his first initial step. His quickness off the snap is very good, he uses good hand placement and really gets leverage, and he has good instincts.

"Ray is going to be an end in our 3-4, so a lot of the pass rush - you don't get a lot from them. Now, when we go to our nickel or our sub packages, and they can afford that lineman (to rush), he's got that ability to get to the quarterback. There were some questions about his medical history that made him slide in the draft, but certainly - especially with where we took him, he (could end up being a draft steal)."

McDonald certainly thinks so. After waiting unexpectedly until the end of the first day of draft weekend to get selected, McDonald says he has something to prove once he puts on a 49ers uniform.

"I don't want to talk bad about anybody," McDonald said, "but I feel I'm better than a lot of the guys taken ahead of me. I'll be playing with a chip on my shoulder."

SFI's 2007 PROJECTION: If it's determined McDonald's knee still needs further work, the 49ers will be inclined to take care of it sooner rather than later, even if it means having him sit out some or all of the upcoming season. That decision probably will be made by the time San Francisco's organized team activities are completed in June. If his knee holds up, McDonald could find a regular role for himself on passing downs in defensive sub packages, and he has the talent to take away the starting position at right end in the team's base 3-4 scheme from veteran holdovers - just like Oliver did last year as an unheralded sixth-rounder. But that is unlikely to happen this season if the knee issues linger over McDonald and he can't go into the start of training camp with his knee deemed at full strength.

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