The SI 64, No. 4: OLB Khalil Mack
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such.
No. 4: Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack
Bio: The Legend of Khalil Mack begins with a tale that has become rather well-known, as its protagonist has taken to telling it repeatedly.
Mack arrived at Buffalo as a two-star recruit. The folks at EA Sports, responsible for the popular "NCAA Football" video game franchise, apparently had little regard for the Fort Pierce, Fla., product, who redshirted in 2009. That year, Mack's virtual version was one of the worst players in EA Sports' ratings.
"The NCAA video game, I was only rated a 46 overall with a 37 rating for speed (ratings go up to 99), and it was a slap in the face, man," Mack recalled. "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."
Four years later, Mack, still sporting that No. 46 jersey as a reminder of his freshman-year snub, sits on the cusp of a top-five draft selection. The 6-foot-3, 251-pound outside linebacker was a finalist for the Butkus Award this past season and earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year Honors. He finished his Buffalo career with 28.5 sacks, 75 tackles for loss ... and more respect from the "NCAA Football" programmers.
His rating in the most recent version of the game?
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Even with a huge boost, Mack still may have been slighted there. Had he played at Alabama or Ohio State or any major program, Mack would have been less a player who stormed the draft doors this past season than a longtime top-10 lock -- possibly even an early-entrant into the 2013 draft.
And speaking of Ohio State, it was Mack's remarkable performance against the then-No. 2 Buckeyes last Aug. 31 that really opened a lot of eyes. Mack racked up 2.5 sacks of Braxton Miller in Buffalo's 40-20 loss at the Horseshoe, plus picked off a Miller pass and took it to the house. The Bulls bounced back from that loss to win eight games and earn a trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Mack never slowed down.
As a result, he has at least an outside shot to be the second straight MAC player picked No. 1 overall, following in the footsteps of Central Michigan's Eric Fisher.
"I can't think about what-ifs," Mack said. "I feel like I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in. I feel like it was God's will that I ended up in Buffalo. Everybody's asking me: 'From Florida to Buffalo, why, why?' It was God's will. I feel like he placed me there, and I'm in the position I'm in now."
Strengths: A 3-4 OLB spot might be ideal, but Mack's versatility makes him a fit for any scheme -- he mentioned at the combine that he had been telling NFL coaches he could play with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 end if they wanted. Creates constant problems for offensive linemen because of the variety of ways he can get to the quarterback. Speed's (4.65) a real selling point, but Mack also plays with strong hands at the line, enabling him to get through blocks.
Rarely, if ever, pancaked or driven into the second level. Not a defender who can be chop-blocked either, due to steady balance. Mack does not mind creating contact at the point of attack, an approach that he brings over to an aggressive tackling style.
His three interceptions last season point to competency in pass coverage. Especially when the play develops in front of him -- screens, short passes to tight ends, check-downs -- Mack reacts rapidly and closes on the football. Confidence is there to succeed, as is that chip-on-the-shoulder intangible that teams will not fail to notice.
Weaknesses: Will need to improve his coverage techniques; even with his speed, he will be a little touch-and-go early when it comes to covering NFL tight ends and RBs. Players like Mack from mid-major schools always will have to answer for the competition level they faced, and Mack had two of his least productive games against Baylor and in that bowl loss to San Diego State.
If Mack is going to play along the line, either as a DE or stand-up rush linebacker, he has to get quicker jumps off the snap. Everything he does when pass-rushing can take a little longer than it needs to, either because of slow reaction time off the snap or because he allows himself to be pushed too wide by a blocker.
Conclusion: Along with Jadeveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins and maybe Jake Matthews, Mack deserves to be in the conversation about the 2014 draft prospect with the most complete game. There are bits and pieces that can be improved, but Mack should be a starter -- and a productive one, at that -- from training camp on through the regular season.
In fact, Mack has a more comprehensive game than Clowney right now. While Clowney may draw more attention at the line of scrimmage, he is not as capable of dropping into coverage or of making plays downhill versus the run as Mack is. Should Mack leapfrog Clowney in the draft, pin it on the combination of Mack's all-around game and relentless motor.