The Mid-American Conference has done it again. For the second straight year, the second-tier football conference has produced a top 10 pick. In 2013, it was Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who went first overall. While Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack may not be the first player taken, he's going to go high.
Coverage: Except some undersized speed linebackers, there aren't many front seven defenders that can match Mack's ability in coverage. He shows fluid movement skills to be an asset dropping into zone coverage. In man, Mack has the athleticism to stick with tight ends working up the seam. Because he's able to cover, Mack can take away a quarterback's easy check downs. What really distinguishes Mack is his instincts. He knows when to time his jumps to break up passes. As a senior, he had seven pass breakups and three interceptions.
Instincts/Recognition: Some have wondered what make Mack a better player than UCLA's Anthony Barr. This is the area where Mack is more advanced. Mack is quick to read a play and find the ball. While it may be a consequence of the team he played on, Mack always seemed to around the play. Mack can get aggressive, though, and will sometimes take him out of a play.
While this play doesn't necessarily show Mack dropped back into traditional coverage, it does showcase his instincts:
That play also displays Mack's speed. No. 1 on Ohio State is Dontre Wilson, one of Ohio State's fastest players.
Pass rush: Mack's best asset as a pass rusher is his ability to turn his speed into power. Because of that, he's best when lined up off the line of scrimmage. He has the speed to make up for being further away from the quarterback at the snap. When he's directly at the line of scrimmage, blockers can get into Mack's pads and give him trouble. When he stays low, though, Mack likes to use a bull rush. It worked against MAC competition, but will it routinely work in the NFL?
When Mack gets to the quarterback, he'll often try to strip the ball. On another play in the Ohio State game, Mack dipped and got around the right end to suplex Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller forcing a fumble (the play was called back).
Another thing that makes Mack such an intriguing prospect is the variety of positions he was lined up at to rush the passer. Mack was used as a linebacker in different formations, but also played as a defensive end and even defensive tackle in some situations. He can play both sides and has had varying degrees of success.
Pursuit/Quickness: It doesn't matter how he or others tested out at the combine. Mack is one of that fastest linebackers in the draft this year. Here is your proof:
There are very few linebackers – pro or college – who can go from dropping back, stopping and getting forward. There could be a lot more written about Mack's speed, but the above play is a routine part of his game.
Run defense: If Mack can get free of blockers, he can be a terror against the run. While he may not be a picture perfect tackler (more on that below), Mack has the strength to bring running backs down by himself. Traits aren't often quantifiable, but Mack does hold the NCAA record for most career forced fumbles with 16.
Strength/Tackling: Purely as a tackler, Mack is plenty strong. He's the type of tackler who likes to ride an opponent into the ground. It would be nice to see Mack square up and drive through the ball carrier more. Because of his range, Mack doesn't miss out on many plays. At the least he can slow the ball carrier down while teammates swarm.
Final word: There is arguably no more versatile defensive player in the draft this year than Mack. At Buffalo, that came as a necessity. Mack was required to line up at the line of scrimmage, as a traditional linebacker and in coverage. In each of the three roles, Mack had varying degrees of success. He's at his best when he's in open space, allowing him to rely on his athleticism and closing speed. Many of Mack's splash plays came as a pass rusher at the line of scrimmage. But in this role, often got held up on blocks. His ability to shed blockers is an area where he'll have to improve.
As a coverage linebacker, Mack is further along than most college linebackers. He's natural moving backward and is more than physical enough to stick with tight ends. He showed off his instincts several times getting his hands on the ball while it's in the air.
Mack looked the best when Buffalo used three linebackers and allowed Mack to stay in space. He wasn't immediately engaging an offensive lineman, allowing him to use his lateral agility and speed. He's still capable of making plays when getting off blocks, but he's better when he can flow to the ball.
Because of Mack's playing style, he's not strictly a 3-4 linebacker. But he may also not be best utilized as an every down end in a 4-3. Teams that use him as a 4-3 linebacker will have to be creative to take advantage of his impressive skill set.
There's a lot a team can do with Mack, and he succeeds in several areas. That's why he should be a top 10 pick in the draft.
Special thanks to Land-Grant Holy Land for the gifs.