Just two years ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that a player from the Mid-American Conference could be the top overall pick in an NFL Draft. Then, Eric Fisher had a fantastic senior season at Central Michigan, wowed scouts at the 2013 Senior Bowl, and ultimately rose to the top of 2013 draft boards. The Kansas City Chiefs took the monumental step of selecting Fisher with the top pick and vaulted the MAC into never-before-seen light.
2014 NFL Draft
2014 NFL Draft
Now, one year (and a couple of weeks) removed from that incredible night, the conference is primed for an improbable repeat. Khalil Mack, former linebacker for the Buffalo Bulls, truly arrived on the national scene last September with an impact performance against Ohio State. He had a fantastic senior season and broke several MAC records (and a few NCAA) along the way. He then had a successful trip through the draft scouting process, including an eye-opening trip to the NFL Combine.
There are just hours to go until the Houston Texans are officially on the clock, and Mack is undeniably in the mix to be their choice. Most news reports seem to focus on one of three possibilities for the Texans with that opening pick. They could select Mack, they could select South Carolina Gamecocks superstar Jadeveon Clowney, or they could trade the pick away.
Let's take a brief look at each of those...
1. Houston Texans select Khalil Mack
This scenario is clearly the one that MAC fans want to see happen, and there's a significant possibility that it will. First, there was a report that Texans' general manager Rick Smith prefers Mack over Clowney. Second, he's an excellent scheme fit for Houston.
His natural fit would be to play outside linebacker in Houston's 3-4 defense, where he could rush the passer from the outside and occasionally drop back into pass coverage. His versatility would also allow him to play some on the inside. With teams having to focus so much on blocking J.J. Watt, Mack could often find himself 1-on-1 against overmatched offensive linemen or even-more-overmatched running backs.
Finally, Mack is widely regarded as one of the safest picks in the draft. Analysts view him as being very pro-ready, a guy who can step onto the field next September and immediately start. No one questions his desire or makeup. Contrast this to other players rumored to go first overall. The quarterbacks are facing questions about their ability to be a true franchise player from day one, and Clowney's desire to be all-in on every play is up for debate.
Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not, but MAC fans should be glued to their televisions at the outset of the draft, lest they miss history.
2. Houston Texans select Jadeveon Clowney
With all of the above being said, it is no secret that Clowney is viewed as the greatest physical specimen in this year's draft. His pure, natural ability reveals an incredible upside. However, that upside carries more risk. Greater risk equals greater reward.
More importantly, there's been questions as to whether or not Clowney would fit in Romeo Crenne's defense in Houston. That point can be debated, but on the "pro" side, there are analysts who believe that Clowney could fill the role that Willie McGinest did for the New England Patriots when Crennel coached there.
These issues regarding Clowney provide quite the conundrum for Houston, but Clowney does appear to be the best player available. There is a large camp that believes a team in Houston's position should always take the best player, and so there could be significant pressure for Houston to pull that trigger.
In this scenario, Mack would most likely still be selected in the top five picks. That could place him with the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders.
3. Houston Texans trade the #1 overall pick.
If indecision over the top pick abounds, perhaps the best move would be to trade out of the top overall pick. This is a scenario that seems to be increasingly gaining traction. It would likely have to involve another team with a selection in the top 10, and the assumption would be that any team who trades with Houston would be moving up to pick Clowney.
One potential target in a trade could be the Atlanta Falcons, who own the sixth pick in the first round. Trading with Atlanta would allow the Texans to gather more picks and to possibly pick a quarterback with that sixth pick.
Would this impact Mack at all/? Most likely, it would not. It might induce another team to trade up into the top five, but Mack would still find a home among teams picking in the top five, even if it wouldn't be #1 overall.
2014 NFL Draft
MAC Draft Prospects Scouting Reports
We broke down some of the MAC's top NFL Draft prospects, weighing their strengths, weaknesses, and where we think they'll fit in at.
2014 NFL Draft
So, if the first scenario occurs and Mack is the top pick, what does that mean for the MAC? Can other teams, and the league as a whole, benefit from the selection?
Unquestionably, the answer is YES, and the reason is simple: exposure.
The NFL knows how to promote like no other entity, and the additional two week lead-up to the 2014 draft has created an even greater frenzy over the event. The first round is a stand-alone primetime event broadcast on two highly-rated cable networks and showered with a huge amount of internet coverage.
It doesn't matter what else the MAC does in any other promotional endeavor. Riding on the coattails of the NFL promotional machine and taking advantage of being the home of the first player selected is exposure that no amount of money could possibly buy.
If Mack is picked first, the MAC will be the first conference talked about on those cable channels. Mack's dominance of an Ohio State team that ultimately went undefeated in the regular season will be the first video highlights that fans will see. Mack's story, tied with that of Eric Fisher, will be the first one told.
It will be one great big commercial for the MAC that says, "Hey, come play in our league! You can dominate for four years and ultimately be the first guy to have your name called in the NFL Draft!" Does that mean that the MAC will get five-star prospects? Of course not. Does it mean that the league's exposure could make a few more three- and four-star prospects consider the league? Absolutely.
If Khalil Mack is picked first overall, the MAC will have a fantastic day of glory. That glory could lead to better recruits, which would lead to a better product on the field. That would eventually mean more national respect, which would lead to an even greater influx of better recruits and an even better product.
Khalil Mack has a lot riding on what the Houston Texans do on Thursday night, but the MAC needs the rub, too. Every football team in and fan of the MAC would ultimately benefit.