Former Buffalo Bull Khalil Mack is likely going to hear his name called within the first few picks of the 2014 NFL Draft. But how does one go from unknown high school prospect to potential Top 3 pick in the NFL Draft? Well, when looking at Buffalo's Khalil Mack, we honestly need not look further than last season's No. 1 overall pick, also a MAC alumnus, Eric Fisher.
Like Mack, Fisher was an athletic stud for his position. Despite being a name not many fans outside of the MAC had heard of, his lack of competition in college didn't outweigh the potential scouts saw in him. Strong performances at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine and his Pro Day helped get Fisher into a Top 5 discussion. Even stronger showings in individual workouts and meetings sealed Fisher's fate as the No. 1 overall Draft pick.
2014 NFL Draft
2014 NFL Draft
Now, a season later, Mack is in an incredibly similar situation. Though it will be much harder for Mack to go No. 1 overall, it's unlikely the beast from Buffalo slips out of the Top 5. Why? Because Mack is about as close as you can come to finding a prospect with no holes in his game.
Back in February, NFL.com Draft analysit Mike Mayock made waves when he said he would take Mack No. 1 overall. That's right, Mayock would take Mack over Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney, the four biggest names in this Draft class.
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But after a showing in the NFL Combine in which Mack outdid Clowney in every category but 40-time, more people started to realize just how much of a lock Mack is as a can't-miss prospect. Not only is Mack a freakish athlete at 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, he's arguably the most pro ready prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft class. Talk to any scout, NFL Draft expert, or head coach (sorry, armchair pundit, you don't get a say in this because for every time you scream "but who has he played" I'm screaming back "but you don't get paid to do this"), Mack could be dropped in and start right away on almost any NFL team.
He has the wow factor when you look at him. Chiseled, lean and in every way a prototypical All-Pro defensive end/linebacker, Mack also has something going for him that high-profile prospects such as Clowney can never have: a chip on his shoulder.
It's well documented by now that the State University of New York at Buffalo was the only FBS level school to offer Mack. Many of you have probably heard the tale about how he chose the No. 46 because that was his original ranking in the NCAA football game as a freshman. Even in his own conference he was looked over in terms of being the best defensive player by many until the past season. His entire career is built on proving people wrong. There's no doubt that Mack's work ethic is through the rough. He has a hunger and a drive that has nothing to do with money, and all about proving he's every bit as good, if not better, than the guys who were handed everything on a silver spoon.
There's no ego issues here. No problems with his maturity level, or him being lazy. This guy is going to outwork everyone on the field from day one.
But maturity level and measurables are not why Mack has risen from a mid-level first round guy into a sure thing Top 10 pick, and even having several experts suggest he could go No. 1 overall. It all comes down to his pro-readiness. Just look at some of the names he's already being compared to:
"He's a polished, experienced, versatile and explosive rusher who could be just shy of the Matthews-Miller-DeMarcus Ware-Aldon Smith level, but if he is it's not by a lot. Mack's ball-jarring and edge-rushing ability make him something of a John Abraham-Ahmad Brooks clone, and that's a very, very good thing." - Eric Edholm, Yahoo Sports.
Mack, who didn't even start focusing on football until his senior season in high school, can be plugged into a 3-4 as a SAM, or dropped into a 4-3 as DE and he will flourish right away. His frame is strong, sturdy and long in all the right places. He's explosive. He's fierce. He's destructive.
He holds the NCAA career record for tackles for loss for a reason. As a pass rusher, there are few guys in this class as polished. He's also incredibly intelligent football wise. Unlike a player such as Clowney, Mack has already played linebacker, making him better suited to make an immediate impact for some defense. But he's also played with his hand in the dirt, meaning he can come in at end right away if needed.
Mack's instincts are unparalleled. He understands how to play both positions, actually, he knows how to play several (he told reports at the Combine he often does drills with the secondary). He gets zone coverage schemes, he can pick apart offensive plays and passing routes, he can read the offensive line and figure out points of attack. He always knows where the ball is in relation to himself, and has an innate ability to get to it (his 16 career forced fumbles are an NCAA record).
In terms of pursuit, he knows how to take proper angles. In pass rushing, his moves are polished. Ripping, swimming, and bull rushing, he can do them all at an NFL-caliber level. He spent his career being double teamed and still managed to wreak havoc. On the rare occasions he wasn't double teamed at the line of scrimmage, he took over the game. There are 2:46 worth of highlights from the Ohio State game all about Mack's play for Christ's sake.
Of course he's not perfect. One thing that works against Mack in a way is that he may already be near his peak. A player such as Clowney has an endless ceiling (apologies for continually bringing up Clowney in this, but he's about the only player in this class to compare Mack to). While Mack is a stud, potential wise he does have some limits.
As experienced as he is in coverage, sometimes he breaks down and lacks fluidity. Occasionally he gets caught in a web of sorts. Even when he is able to hang with a receiver/tight end in traffic and get out to the flats with them, his tackling ability in space isn't nearly what it is in the box. He doesn't always square his tackles up, which is fine when in traffic, but when out in space it becomes easier for a shifty player to break his grasp.
As disruptive as he was, he can almost be a bit wild at times, occasionally getting tangled up in traffic. Also, while he is a great rusher, his success mostly comes off the line scrimmage. He is explosive, but because he spent most of his time standing up, his snap anticipation isn't as polished as a lineman with less room to move around with. Therefore he doesn't launch out of his stance with the same ferocity that he does when coming in from a stand-up position.
But again, where he has faults, his strengths often make up for it. His less-than-perfect tackling ability in space is made up by his athleticism and intelligence that allows him to take the proper pursuit angles and hang with slot/running back in space, and at the least, slow them up. In the pass rush, while he may not be the most effective on the line of scrimmage, just drop him back a yard or two and his motor kicks in and allows him to blitz an offensive lineman with such speed and force he can overwhelm the lineman before he's in a set position. Even on the line, he has all the physical tools, and with more experience with his hand in the dirt should be able to correct those faults in no time.
He's best suited for a team where he can be used in a variety of ways. Where his strengths are exploited in the most effective ways possible. By moving him around and using him in various packages a team can maximize his assets, and minimize his already few and far between weaknesses.
Where will Mack wind up? Well considering most NFL teams have some kind of need for a polished pass rusher like Mack, or a skilled linebacker, it's unlikely he slips out of the Top 10, even in the worst case scenario. Jacksonville, at No. 3, seems like a logical place for him to go. The Jags are in need of a edge rusher, and Mack is the type of player you can build a defense around. However, Jacksonville also needs a quarterback, and could go that route.
Cleveland needs a lot of things at No. 4, and head coach Mike Pettine raved about Mack to ESPN in March.
"He's a guy that the tape backs it up. He can play on the ball, he can play off the ball, he plays violently, and he's played some of his better games against better competition."
If Cleveland doesn't trade that No. 4 pick, and Mack is still there, it's a logical place for him to land. But then again, a team such as Minnesota, which is looking to replace Jared Allen, could trade up to the No. 4 spot to take Mack. At No. 5 Oakland needs just about everything, but doesn't seem inclined to go for a QB in the first round. Honestly, I think if Mack gets as far down as No. 6, where Atlanta is picking, he won't go any further. The Falcons are also looking for a guy who can boost their pass rush attack, and Mack would fit into their defense perfectly.
Expect to hear Mack's name early in the Draft, and often on Sundays. He's about as close as you can get to a sure-thing.