In recent weeks, I've kept hearing a lot of hype about Khalil Mack's play so far this season. I even saw one person tweet that, in effect, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award was Mack's to lose at this point. I ... don't get it.
Look, I'm a Mack fan and have been since I broke his play in college down this spring. My problem really has been the way in which the Raiders tried to use him at the start of his pro career. Because the Raiders signed defensive ends/outside rush linebackers in Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley in the offseason, I guess early on they couldn't figure out whether to keep those guys on the field on passing downs or take one of them off and let Mack rush. Mack was playing Sam linebacker so he was coming off the field in nickel quite a bit. With his pass rush ability being the primary reason he was drafted in the first place, this made absolutely no sense to me.
Then after a few weeks the Raiders actually experimented with using a true 3-4 scheme against the Patriots. Mack and Woodley were the starting outside linebackers and Tuck was playing a 3-4 five-technique, basically. To my eyes this lineup worked great and is something they should have continued to utilize. Of course with Woodley tearing his biceps a few weeks back, it's moot now. But even before that injury the Raiders reverted back to a 4-3 scheme and once again somebody between Mack, Tuck, and Woodley had to be the odd man out.
Thankfully somebody got their head out of their ass and decided to start Mack at what is basically a defensive end position and just let him stand up in his stance. That has allowed Mack to develop his pass rush and he is now getting a ton more opportunities to go at the passer. Of course Tuck and Woodley got screwed in the process, but they were only going to be stopgap guys anyway. Better to let the future of the franchise get the reps so he can develop at a quicker pace.
Photo via Steve Dykes
The results have been encouraging but they have also not been earth-shattering either. Yeah, Mack is rushing better, but he still hasn't recorded a sack. Yes, he is a hitting machine who goes from sideline to sideline like a heat-seeking missile, but he still hasn't forced a fumble so far this season. I guess what I'm saying is, yeah I see the potential like everybody else, but that's mostly all there is right now -- potential. Let's at least agree that actual production should matter a lot in who gets picked for Defensive Rookie Of The Year, no?
Which brings me to the guy I would have expected to be getting showered with the love that Mack has been getting, Minnesota Vikings rookie linebacker Anthony Barr. Now, unlike the Raiders, the Vikings got it right from the start with Barr. While Barr also starts at the Sam linebacker position, he never comes off the field. He is either one of the nickel linebackers or a rush end on passing downs. The one major concern I had with Barr is that he would go to a team that wouldn't know how to use him (*cough* Raiders *cough*), but he couldn't have landed in a better situation. Vikings head coach/defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer knows exactly how to use Barr's talents to the fullest. But it's not just that they are putting Barr in a position to succeed, the rookie is doing his part by making the most of the spots he is put in. When it comes to making big plays, Barr has been a weapon for his team.
In nine games, Barr has already racked up 58 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. Hell, he about single-handedly won the game against my beloved Bucs in overtime by stripping tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on Tampa's first play from scrimmage and picking up said fumble and running it all the way back for a touchdown.
This past Sunday Barr was at it again against Washington. He had a sack on an A-gap blitz, at least one tackle for a loss and he also had a sack/forced fumble after he knocked the ball out of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III's hand on a two-point conversion attempt with a little over nine minutes left to play in the game.
And how did Mack do against the Seahawks this past Sunday? Well he did have seven tackles, but none of them were for lost yardage. I know he got credited for a tackle for a loss on running back Marshawn Lynch in the third quarter of the game, but watching the All-22, as I suspected from watching the TV copy, it was actually defensive tackle Justin Ellis' tackle for a loss. Funny thing is the announcer credited Mack on the play too, and followed up by saying, "He might be Defensive Rookie of the Year. "
Don't get me wrong, seven tackles is a pretty damn good game. But if you are asking me what I want to see from a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, I'm going to tell you I want to see them make splash plays. I assume that if they were picked that high they should be able to make the routine plays routinely. What nobody can ever know for sure, however, is if those high draft picks will be able to make the spectacular plays, the rare plays that only the best of the best players can make.
Based on what I have seen so far, Barr has done a lot more to impress me as the Defensive Rookie of the Year.