Little Hype, Huge Upside

April 29, 2014 by Greg A. Bedard

Nearly everything about University at Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack screams that he’ll be a dominating presence in the NFL. That’s why you’ve heard him regularly mentioned as a top five or six pick, with a chance at being the top overall pick. Nothing’s for certain when it comes to drafting NFL players, but the odds are tilted toward Mack fulfilling his promise.

He’s got everything a team is looking for, especially most 3-4 teams, physically and on film. Mack has very good size at 6 feet, 2½ inches and 251 pounds. With 33¼-inch arms, he plays even bigger because that length is longer than the reach of many left tackles, so Mack can stack and shed their blocks. Mack has very good speed (4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash), quickness (7.08 in three-cone drill; an unreal 4.18 in the short shuttle) and explosiveness (a freakish 40-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump).

Basically, if you were to input ideal physical attributes for a 3-4 outside linebacker into a computer, Mack would be very close to the living and breathing result. Forget all the talk comparing Jadeveon Clowney to Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (so far off base), Mack is the much closer comparison, especially when you factor in his relentlessness and passion. Mack’s just not quite as fast Taylor was.

And with Mack, the tape also matches up. He can be effective playing so many different ways, it’s truly impressive for a college prospect. Mack can use power to shove back a future NFL tackle like Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort; Mack also beat Mewhort with quickness. How about showing off vast athleticism by avoiding Mewhort’s cut block, picking off the pass and then returning it for a touchdown? Mack possesses such a wide array of skills, you can easily make the projection that he can play anything from 4-3 end to just about any linebacker position in any scheme. Just watch the variety of plays Mack makes in the final quarter plus (in a blowout loss, but nonetheless) against San Diego State. That only enhances his appeal.

Against Ohio State Mack was the best player on the field. That’s where most of the public and the media will stop. But there are some concerns that should be pointed out before Mack gets drafted in the top 10.

Even coming from Buffalo, where he didn’t face good competition on a weekly basis, isn’t of great concern when you consider that DeMarcus Ware, a four-time All-Pro, finished at Troy University with 27 sacks and 55.5 tackles for loss. Mack left Buffalo with 28.5 sacks and 75 tackles for loss, performing against the lesser competition exactly as he should have to project to the next level. And when he got the chance against Ohio State, Mack was the best player on the field.

If you stop right there, Mack deserves to be picked in the top five and is headed toward great success, especially when you factor in the reports that he’s humble, a hard worker and plays his tail off (except for the end of a blowout loss against Baylor). Maybe we should stop right there. Certainly, the general public and most of the media will, and some NFL teams will as well. But I know some NFL teams haven’t, and there are some concerns out there that should be pointed out before Mack gets drafted in the top 10.

Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB
Photo by Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB

The Ohio State game

Mack was on most teams’ radar as a late first-round to second-round prospect entering his senior season. His 2.5 sacks and interception for a touchdown against the Buckeyes boosted his prospects dramatically. Making those kinds of plays against an opponent who will be in the NFL at some point, either at right or left tackle, impresses scouts a great deal. But the issue with Mack’s performance against Ohio State is that besides those three plays, nearly all of his production came against sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker, who isn’t considered an NFL prospect, or against tight ends and guards.

For example, look at the consecutive plays on this clip and another sack on this clip. This is not going to happen on Sundays; what he faced on those plays wasn’t NFL-caliber competition. Not convinced? Watch Decker give up this easy sack to another Buffalo player. You can’t simply say “Look at the Ohio State tape” when assessing Mack, without putting it in the proper context. (Never mind the fact that NFL teams hate looking at Ohio State offensive tape, both to gauge the Buckeyes’ offense and opposing defenses, because it’s not comparable to the pro game.) There’s certainly a lot to like about Mack’s play against the Buckeyes—especially going against Mewhort and showing downfield hustle—but it shouldn’t be used as an open and shut case for why Mack will dominate at the pro level.

Finishing plays

Probably the biggest concern among critical NFL teams is that Mack, even though he made a lot of plays, left a good number on the field as well. His standout athleticism allowed him to win at ease on most plays, but he has not shown himself to be a good finisher. Watch any film of Mack, against any opponent, and you will see examples of this. Just a few: here, here, here, here, and getting knocked down by running backs on back-to-back plays here. This is an issue, because if Mack couldn’t close out plays with regularity in the MAC, how is he suddenly going to do it in the NFL? Some players, even as limited athletes, are born closers, and that makes up for what they lack in athleticism. Some players don’t fulfill their potential as game-changers because they don’t finish enough plays. A variety of reasons could explain this, including a lack of optimal instincts during a play. That’s what some teams are concerned about with Mack. Also, while he certainly plays with physicality at the point of attack when his responsibility calls for it, he is not quite as good when he has to read and react (this shows up more on the coaches’ film than the TV copy).

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Special teams

Players can be schemed against to limit their effectiveness, but one place you are sure to gauge a player’s play speed and desire is on special teams. Mack played on the punt teams at Buffalo, and if there was any big disappointment with his game, this is where it showed up. Mack didn’t display the same passion on special teams as he did for defense.

Bottom line

After watching six games of Mack on coaches’ film, I think that while concerns about some of his weaknesses should be noted and monitored, they don’t bother me very much. I’m even willing to look past the special teams issues because Mack was playing his tail off on defense and probably shouldn’t have even been on those units. (Some coaches will disagree with this). If Mack is on an NFL special teams unit, I’m confident he’ll give a more complete effort. I also think some of Mack’s issues finishing plays had to do with being too fast and too explosive, because he hasn’t yet become completely comfortable with his playing speed. That will no longer be a problem when the game slows down and he matures as a player and is able to harness his talent. Once Mack reaches that point (the time can vary wildly by player), he will be a terrific all-around player. When you combine his impressive explosiveness, length and obvious passion for the game, it’s difficult not to see Mack becoming a top player at his position—whatever that may be (optimally 3-4 outside linebacker) within three years. While I do have some concerns about whether or not Mack is a top-five talent in this draft class, it doesn’t make sense to argue over a few spots. The verdict here is five years down the road, when Mack will be viewed as at least a top-10 talent in a talented draft class. He may not come from a big-time football power, but there’s nothing small-time about his game when projecting it to the pro level.

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