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Draft darlings: Will McDonald IV could add some juice to the Chiefs’ pass rush

The Iowa State defensive end uses his first-step explosion and savvy pass-rushing moves to dominate tackles.

Iowa State v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

When the NFL Draft opens at Union Station later this month, the Kansas City Chiefs will be hoping to acquire at least one edge rusher. If they want one who could add some new twists to their game plans, Iowa State defensive end Will McDonald IV could be available to them in the first round. He combines superior athletic ability with a high level of production — including 34 career sacks and 10 forced fumbles.

Bending the arc

Iowa State primarily plays a 3-3-5 stack defense. This scheme typically used McDonald as a 4-technique lineman who was head up over the offensive tackle. Sometimes McDonald would bump to the inside, playing a 4i-technique in the B gap — between the tackle and guard — or play as tight 5-technique who lines up just outside the guard.

Defensive ends in this kind of role are usually larger, bulkier players who win with power; they are trying to crush the pocket. But McDonald is nothing like that. At 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, he is built more like an outside linebacker or a standup EDGE. He wins by using his speed and flexibility to bend the arc.

Here we see McDonald lined up in a tight 5-technique. On the snap, he shows off his ultra-quick first step while flying off the line of scrimmage. When the tackle turns his hips to make contact, McDonald cuts down the angle, using his flexibility to bend the arc and bring down the quarterback.

While McDonald is impressive on this play, NFL teams are not likely to put him in this alignment. Instead, teams will widen him out — where he looks more natural.

Lining up much wider than usual on this play, McDonald gets a running start — and builds speed as he meets the tackle. While the tackle attempts a flat-set to contact McDonald quickly, he isn’t quick enough; McDonald still bends his way around the arc. While the quarterback gets rid of the ball soon enough, another split second would have given McDonald a chance for a sack.

Pass rush moves

In the modern NFL, it’s very important for edge rushers to have athletic fluidity. When they combine that with an arsenal of pass rush moves — as McDonald does — they stand out from the crowd. While McDonald often uses his physical abilities to get after quarterbacks, he also plays with a high level of intelligence, using an array of pass-rushing moves (and counters) to frustrate his opponents.

Matched up here against another potential first-round pick — Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison — McDonald uses a well-timed move to make a big play.

McDonald has been burning around the edge throughout the game, so Harrison is waiting for it. Ready for McDonald’s quick first step, Harrison gets into his drive-and-catch as McDonald starts a rip move to get around him.

Harrison tries to wash McDonald upfield — but when his outward momentum starts to take him further up the pocket, McDonald stops on a dime, disengages from the block and lights up the quarterback from the blind side, forcing the ball free. To his credit, Harrison fights off what must have been a sinking feeling in his stomach to jump on the loose ball.

This play displays McDonald’s intelligence and savvy. He knows that he is quicker than every tackle he will go against, so he takes advantage by allowing Harrison to overset to the outside.

His ability to pressure tackles in this way creates a sense of urgency in their games — which, in turn, allows McDonald to unlock other areas of his own game.

In this rep, the tackle wants to mirror McDonald off the snap, hoping to prevent a speed rush to the outside. Coming off of the ball quickly, McDonald starts by going to the outside — but then jabs to the inside. Reacting to the jab , the tackle prepares for contact — but McDonald feels the forward lean and swats the tackle's hands down before continuing his rush to the outside. Then it’s a simple matter to engulf the quarterback — and force the fumble.

Good players sack the quarterback. Great players force fumbles.

Run defense

Early in his NFL career, McDonald likely projects as a pass rushing specialist; his lighter frame could make it more difficult for him to defend against the run. In college, McDonald held his own in the running game — but de did that from interior positions where he is not likely to be utilized as a professional.

As we see in this snap from an interior alignment, however, he uses good leverage to stop the offensive linemens’ push — forcing the run back inside.

This ability to out-leverage another player — along with his frame — will translate well in an NFL run defense. While McDonald might have to add weight to his frame, the skill is there.

The bottom line

Physically, McDonald is hardly the prototypical defensive end that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo tends to like — but he could provide an element of athletic ability that has long been needed on the edge of Kansas City’s defensive line. With Chris Jones dominating the interior (and pushing quarterbacks out of the pocket), a more athletic player who could finish plays from the edge would be beneficial.

This season, the Chiefs will play a gauntlet of athletic, mobile quarterbacks who can extend plays — including Justin Herbert (x2), Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Having an athletic edge who has the ability to chase down these mobile gunslingers will go a long way toward improving the defense — and could make McDonald an option for one of Kansas City’s first two draft picks.

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