INDIANAPOLIS -- The great three-headed quarterback debate -- Johnny, Teddy or Blake? -- and the Jadeveon Clowney freak show will no doubt consume most of the oxygen in the long build-up to the NFL's 2014 draft. But what if the league's next great player, the bluest of the blue chips, winds up being a pass-rushing linebacker from the unlikely football factory known as the University of Buffalo?
Khalil Mack might not have the biggest name in this year's draft, but he might have the most dominant game. And the buzz around him is starting to build.
"He's one of the best two or three players in this draft,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock told Twin Cities radio station KFAN at the league's scouting combine. "I'm going to tell you right now, I'd take him with the first pick. That's how much I think of Khalil Mack.
"You talk about a guy like Clowney, who's just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid, and if I had a choice between the two, I think I'm going Mack.''
That kind of ringing endorsement might sound like sacrilege to college football fans who have considered it a foregone conclusion that South Carolina's Clowney would be the first defensive player selected, with his freakish edge-rush skills. But in time, Mack's overall game might even get a step on Clowney in the eyes of NFL scouts, some of whom have reason to question the former Gamecock's work ethic and dedication to his craft. There seem to be no such issues surrounding Mack's blend of pass rush and coverage skills, and non-stop motor.
"Here he is a kid from the University of Buffalo, and you put on the tape and he dominates Ohio State (in the 2013 season opener) like nobody I've ever seen dominate them,'' Mayock said. "He's explosive off the edge, he's tough, he's twitchy, he's got a little edge about him. When I watch him on tape, I feel like he's pissed off at the world, and I like that.
"Then you put on a tape, I think it was Kent State, and he drops into coverage like a safety, reads the quarterback's eye, undercuts a route, one-handed interception. And I'm going, 'What can't this kid do?' I'm thinking he must be a bad kid off the field, and then I find out he's a really good kid off the field.''
A run on quarterbacks near the top of the first round could, of course, push Mack out of the top five. But at least four teams in the first eight spots are seeking more pass rush -- No. 3 Jacksonville, No. 6 Atlanta, No. 7 Tampa Bay and No. 8 Minnesota -- and all are doing their homework on the versatile Mack, who is considered a three-down player no matter if he plays in his natural 3-4 outside linebacker slot or any linebacker spot in a 4-3. Mack said teams have even talked to him here about putting his hand in the dirt and playing rush defensive end in a 4-3 defense.
"I love it,'' Mack said. "I told them I can play defensive end if they need me to. I don't want to limit myself to just playing one specific thing. I feel like that's the biggest thing for me. I try to work out with the defensive ends, with the linebackers, and I go over and work out with the DBs (defensive backs) -- just to stay fresh. I don't want to put a limit on myself.''
Unlike Clowney's underwhelming 2013 production at South Carolina, Mack's senior season at Buffalo was a tour de force, starting with that eye-opening performance against powerful Ohio State, a game in which he registered nine tackles, 2½ sacks and recorded a 45-yard pick-6. Mack's 19 tackles for loss, 10½ sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions made him a one-man wrecking crew for the Bulls, and not even the relative obscurity of the Mid-American Conference will discourage NFL scouts. Mack finished his collegiate career having tied the NCAA record for tackles for loss (75), and set a record for forced fumbles (16).
"I got a lot of single blocks and it just so happened I played off of a cut-block and got an interception [against Ohio State],'' Mack said on Saturday in his media session at the combine. "There were a lot of things that played into my favor in that game. Hard work does pay off. I feel it was, sort of, a little disrespect from a schematic approach (the one-on-one blocking). But at the same time, I wanted to make them pay for it.''
Mack apparently seeks motivational fuel wherever he can find it, opting to wear No. 46 as his jersey number all four seasons at Buffalo because he felt slighted by his rating on the NCAA Football video game as a freshman. Whatever works, I suppose.
"The NCAA video game, the first one that I was on, I was only rated a 46 overall, with a 37 rating for speed,'' Mack said. "It was a slap in the face, man. Because I knew deep down in my heart I was better than a 46. And it just so happened, I was already No. 46, so I kept the number.''
Mack's numbers at the combine so far are 6-2 ½, 251 pounds, but the linebackers won't be put through their drill work at Lucas Oil Stadium until Monday. He's expected to dazzle league decision-makers with his athleticism and his explosiveness and admits he's eager to live up to Mayock's lofty assessment of his prospects.
"Mike Mayock is the man,'' Mack said. "I want to prove him right. I've been working hard this past five to six weeks and I'm ready to grind and get out there to work out. I want to just keep proving myself. I want to be the best.''
Mack had just one scholarship offer extended after growing up in Fort Pierce, Fla., and that's how he gravitated all the way to western New York and a Buffalo program that isn't nationally known as a football powerhouse. But NFL talent evaluators are comparing him to the likes of Bengals linebacker James Harrison and ex-Saints linebacking great Rickey Jackson, and his dynamic edge rush skills remind some of Denver's Von Miller and San Francisco's Aldon Smith. The value of those kind of impact players in the NFL never go out of style.
"He's a productive, explosive, fast-twitch pass rusher, one of those guys that can fit any scheme,'' new Bucs general manager Jason Licht told the Tampa Tribune. "He has speed along with power, not just one or the other, and so he's a very interesting guy.''
Come May 8's first round, Mack will be a very coveted guy. Players who can both rush and cover are so rare in the NFL, and Mack's skill set makes him a fit for any team and in any scheme. Linebackers aren't generally viewed as safe or solid top-five prospects, but Mack has emerged as an exception to the rule. And he might even wind up coming off the board before the talented and ultra-celebrated Clowney when the first round unfolds.
"From my perspective, in today's NFL, guys that have natural edge-rush ability are like gold,'' Mayock said. "You've got to get them when they're available. I think he's one of the elite edge guys in the draft. But he hustles, he's tough, he can play the run game and, unlike a lot of these guys, he can also drop in coverage. So I have yet to find a hole in his game."
Coming from a small school, Mack's fame might still be lacking in comparison to the biggest headliners in this year's draft. He's not a quarterback, and his last name isn't Clowney, with a signature highlight-reel hit to his credit. But the buzz around his play is gaining momentum, and he'll hear his name soon enough once the picking starts. His elite-level game will take care of that.