For my second draft breakdown I decided to go with Khalil Mack, outside linebacker for the University at Buffalo. Buffalo runs a 3-4 so Mack is an edge pass rusher, but he also drops into coverage a fair bit.
I broke down Mack's play against Ohio State, Baylor, Stony Brook, UMass, Ohio University and San Diego State. Those represent the first, second and third games of the year, a couple of games in the middle of the season, and the bowl game at the end of the season, in order.
Smooth and Polished
The two words that come to mind about Mack after watching him play are smooth and polished. Both terms go hand-in-hand when it comes to how he plays.
Mack is very athletic, almost like a basketball player on the field, the way he changes speeds, stops and starts, and the way he changes direction. You won't see much, if any wasted motion, whether he is dropping into a zone, playing the run or rushing the passer. Even his power rushes look damn near effortless, as much as running over a guy can look effortless.
A big part of the reason he looks so smooth is because of his polished technique. This guy has been well coached, and it shows. His footwork and change-of-direction skills are great when he's running down the line of scrimmage trying to chase down a running play from the backside. Mack also always seems to take good angles to the ball. And then there's the great work he does with his hands to get free from a blocker whether playing the run or getting after the quarterback, uncommon for college players.
There were rare times when Mack didn't try to escape off of a block with good technique and gets locked on for too long, but most of the time he is either ripping or doing a compact arm-over to get to the ball carrier. Mack does a great job of getting his arms fully extended and elbows locked when engaging with blockers, which helps him to escape clean off the block. You can see him minding the details of his pass rush in his dip-and-rip speed rush move, where he actually does the rip part of it almost every time.
Like I said, uncommon.
He even has good hand placement when he goes with power rushes like a bull rush or a long arm, which makes those moves that much more effective.
Another thing I love about how Mack plays is that he always seems to be in control, rarely getting overextended and missing tackles. That comes from good technique as well as good balance. He plays with a kind of controlled fury that might not always be flashy, but is damned productive, which is what matters most.
Make no mistake, this kid is very athletic. But it's his technique that allows him to maximize his athleticism play after play after play.
I had to laugh watching the UMass game because the opposing QB tried Mack in coverage one play; Mack almost picked it off. Then he tried him again the very next play, and Mack not only picked it off, he took it back to the house for six!
That sequence perfectly illustrates what I mean when I say he is smooth and polished. Neither the PBU nor the pick-six were crazy athletic plays -- Mack just knew where he was supposed to be, had good awareness of the route combination and showed good anticipation breaking on the ball. Now, the run back on the pick-six and the catch itself were pretty damn athletic, but my point is he is just a really good football player who has obviously drilled his technique work enough that it is all second nature to him. No wasted motion on his break, stuck his foot in the ground, changed directions, then made the play.
In a nutshell, that is who Mack is when you watch film: just a damn good football player.
Mack also is a very powerful man. I don't know what he benches or squats, though he did 23 reps of 225 pounds at the Combine. What I do know is that I saw him literally run over offensive tackles twice, against both Ohio and UMass on pass rushes.
And I when I say ran over, those guys were on their backs, on the ground, looking up in the sky and thinking about the meaning of life at the end of those plays. That's what I call explosion right there. Mack has the kind of functional strength that, combined with his high level of technique, makes him damn tough to block with one guy no matter who that guy is or whether it's a run or a pass.
Every once in a while, I saw Mack get stuck on a run block for too long, but in general, he would get good extension and then escape to wherever the ball carrier was. He seems to be particularly strong with his right arm, which he uses almost to joust with guys at times. He punches opposing blockers in the chest with that right hand, and you see them get shocked and either stop in their tracks or get moved backwards. You can have great technique all you want, but if you can't bench guys off you, then you won't be able to get to the ball much as a linebacker or defensive lineman. They will just grab you and hang on until the whistle blows.
Mack ain't having it, though.
Oh, and this kid is physical as hell when he goes to meet the ball carrier. He isn't trying to lay anybody down gently. Instead, he comes out with his hips and tries to destroy opposing players. He is physical in coverage as well, and you can see him jamming the piss out of opposing wide receivers trying to run crossing routes in front of him in several games.
In projecting how Mack will do in the NFL, I had to watch the film several times because while he is good at just about everything, I am not sure he is elite at any one thing.
I would expect Mack to run well at the combine. He ran a 4.65. He closes well, and he turns his hips well to help him run a straighter line to the quarterback when pass rushing. I still don't see a Von Miller-type get off from the snap. I do see great anticipation off the snap, so that part is a plus. It is usually his good technique with his hands that gets Mack to the quarterback rather than just flat running around a guy.
Mack is good playing the run, but at 6’3 he might have a tougher time with the bigger tight ends and tackles he will see on a regular basis in the NFL. You can say that size is overblown -- hell, I am 6'2 and I did OK ... I think -- but at the same time, I was never a Pro Bowl-type player and I was never expected to be one either.
But, and this is a huge but, Mack can play somewhere in any scheme and play at a high level. I love him just as much as a defensive end as I do as a 3-4 linebacker. Primarily, this is because he is so polished technique-wise. I would worry about a 3-4 linebacker switching to defensive end who wasn't particularly good with his hands. By college football standards, Mack is great with his hands.
The fact that he plays disciplined, changes direction so well and also lines up all over the place, including at three technique at times, also leads me to believe that he will have few troubles transitioning to putting his hand on the ground as a defensive end. In the six games I broke down, I only saw him with his hand on the ground a total of 10 times, but he looked extremely comfortable doing so. That includes a few times when they bumped him inside to pass rush the guards, which he had a field day doing.
I could even imagine Mack playing middle linebacker in either scheme with his athleticism and physicality.
The fact that Mack should be able to play either outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3, or maybe even middle linebacker, at a high level in the NFL will only serve to enhance his draft "stock."
Floor vs. Ceiling
If you were wondering why I didn't go back and forth with more negative stuff I saw in the games from Mack, well, I didn't see many things to knock him on. Sounds crazy, but I'm not going to invent something just to say "he needs to work on this." Of course, he can always get better at the things he is already good at, like making sure to rip every single time when he escapes off a pass block, but that is a level of nitpicking I am not prepared to jump to.
The kid impressed the hell out of me, period.
I am sure that after having said all that, some of you are wondering if I am wavering on my proclamation about the Houston Texans needing to draft Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick instead of Khalil Mack.
No, not at all.
I do have to say that doing draft projections does conflict with the way I normally look at things, as I feel like I am a coach at heart. Coaches love to have a guy who is "plug and play," so to speak. Those are guys who already have good technique and just need a little fine-tuning to go out there and ball out from day one. It makes their job easier, and in truth, they are generally the "safer" players to bring onto your team because you pretty much know what you are going to get from them.
The draft, especially the top of the draft, doesn't always or even usually work that way, however.
The question when it comes to top NFL Draft prospects is not just "how good are you today?", it is also and maybe more importantly "how good can you be in five to 10 years?"
It's why so many folks eye potential more so than production. I can't say one way or the other whether that is the right approach; I can just tell you that, for the most part, this is the approach for many teams.
Here is where, as crazy as it sounds, Mack gets graded down for already being a polished player. You look and ask yourself, is he going to get taller? Probably not. Faster? Maybe, but probably not by much. Stronger? Yes, but he is plenty strong. Better technique-wise? Well, as I keep saying, the kid has outstanding technique already.
So his "upside" is limited to a certain extent. What you are going to get is a really, really good football player who likely will have consistently good production his whole career, rather than a guy who starts off slow until he gets his technique right and then explodes for great production the rest of his career after he gets it down pat.
That isn't really a knock on Mack as much as it is the reality of the situation. I think he is probably the most NFL-ready true 3-4 outside linebacker we have seen in a while. His production was very good, especially when you consider that he was a part of three sacks (credited with 2.5) against OSU in the first game of the year. I know some folks will knock him because of the level of competition, but that game showed he can play with anybody ... especially if you are foolish enough to block him one-on-one as OSU tried to do on 15 of the 17 plays where I thought he had a legitimate chance to rush the passer.
The fact that Mack is already comfortable dropping into coverage gives him a huge advantage over most of the other highly rated guys who are projected as 3-4 outside linebackers because most of those guys played defensive end in college. I was one of those kind of guys, and while I went to a 4-3 team instead of a 3-4 team (which in many ways was worse), I can promise you that dropping into coverage, or rather my inexperience dropping into coverage, played a huge role in me not making the team that first year.
It comes down to a choice between a guy who will probably start right away and be productive and guy with a mountain of unrealized potential. At his best, Mack may make a Pro Bowl or two, but will likely never be an All-Pro guy or contend for Defensive Player of the Year during his career or a guy who has the potential to be in the conversation for DPOY every year of his career after he has fully developed in the NFL (like Jadeveon Clowney). I understand the impulse to go with the safe pick in Mack, but for me, no matter who I pick No. 1 overall, I want him to be a guy with a high ceiling who help can turn around my franchise, because there is usually a good reason why we are picking that high in the first place.
At the end of the day, somebody is going to be very happy with Mack, and he is likely to have a very productive career no matter where he goes. I just don't see him having the kind of ceiling that you will have with a guy like Clowney.