We continue our Making the Case series with one of the most intriguing and exciting prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft class, Buffalo's Khalil Mack. It's not often that a player from a MAC school earns praise as one of the best in the nation, but one year after Eric Fisher jumped to the top of draft boards, Mack is doing the same and for good reason. But if he falls to the seventh pick, should the Buccaneers take a look?
Why he's a realistic option
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want a fast football team, according to head coach Lovie Smith. That means adding athleticism and ability at every level on both sides of the football. One such position that could use an athleticism upgrade is linebacker.
Lavonte David is every bit as athletic and capable as he needs to be as a weakside linebacker, but Mason Foster isn't a prototype three-down middle linebacker, and the Bucs don't have a particularly attractive option at strongside linebacker who possesses a combination of size and speed like Mack.
The University of Buffalo product stands 6’3" tall, weighs 251 pounds, yet runs the 40 yard dash in the mid 4.6 range and has explosive numbers in other combine exercises like vertical leap (40 inches), broad jump (128 inches) and 20 yard shuttle (4.18 seconds). All of these numbers were among the best at the linebacker position, and Mack is among the bigger prospects in that group.
Why Mack fits the Buccaneers
This is the biggest question for Mack, as the Buccaneers don't seem to have a need for the dynamic playmaker on a full-time basis on their defense. But if he's on the board for the Buccaneers at the seventh pick, and Lovie Smith wants to add the best player possible to bolster his defense, he can still get the most out of Mack without abandoning his strict, symmetrical 4-3 principles.
Khalil Mack was a 3-4 outside linebacker at Buffalo, and many project him to play any edge position in the NFL. For the Buccaneers, the most realistic edge position for him to play is SAM linebacker, as right defensive end is taken by newly signed Michael Johnson and left defensive end is a logjam of decent options (and also typically requires a player with a bit more size and strength than Mack). And quite frankly, SAM linebackers aren’t taken in the top-10 of NFL Drafts, at least not in a 4-3 when that position is the first to be subbed off the field to add an extra defensive back.
Mack figures to be taken by a team like Jacksonville, who will use him in a LEO/linebacker/edge rusher role that moves him around and gets him better opportunities to rush the passer. But he could fit in Tampa as a full-time linebacker if Lovie Smith and Jason Licht determine he’s capable enough in coverage to replace Mason Foster or Jonathan Casillas as the sub package linebacker next to Lavonte David.
Mack could play SAM in the Buccaneers’ base 4-3 alignment, and when it’s time to bring on an extra corner, he can stay on the field along with Lavonte David, and cover short zones, jam tight ends, and rush the passer when Leslie Frazier dials up a blitz.
He’s incredibly disruptive when rushing from a two-point stance, and he also pursues well from a standing start, able to get down the line of scrimmage and chase down ball carriers. But he also has shown to be capable in coverage, closing quickly on passes and having an eye for the football that led to seven pass breakups and three interceptions during his senior season despite mainly playing as a pass rusher.
And of course, should the Buccaneers get a bit creative on defense, Mack would be able to play a hybrid linebacker/end role on passing downs and create a fearsome fourth member of a QB hunting group including Michael Johnson, Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald.
If the Buccaneers select Khalil Mack, it won't be to simply use him like Von Miller and line him up at "linebacker" and tell him to run after quarterbacks. Instead, he’ll have to do some more traditional linebacker duties, but that’s something he’s proven he can do, despite being one of the best edge rushers in this year’s draft.
What others say about him
A havoc-wreaking rush linebacker with the burst and acceleration to excel as a right defensive end in a "40" front, Mack has demonstrated the instincts, toughness, athletic ability and explosive power to line up at any linebacker position in an even or odd front and factor readily. Is a four-year starter who made an immediate impact upon his arrival and is well primed for the NFL game. Looks every bit the part, comes from a humble, grounded family and offers the full package to become an impact performer in the pros.
And with Mack, the tape also matches up. He can be effective playing so many different ways, it’s truly impressive for a college prospect. Mack can use power to shove back a future NFL tackle like Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort; Mack also beat Mewhort with quickness. How about showing off vast athleticism by avoiding Mewhort’s cut block, picking off the pass and then returning it for a touchdown? Mack possesses such a wide array of skills, you can easily make the projection that he can play anything from 4-3 end to just about any linebacker position in any scheme. Just watch the variety of plays Mack makes in the final quarter plus (in a blowout loss, but nonetheless) against San Diego State. That only enhances his appeal.
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."
"Khalil Mack can play anywhere in the front," Mayock said. "If you put the tape on against Ohio State, he dominates Ohio State like nobody I’ve ever seen dominate them. He’s explosive off the edge, he’s tough, he’s twitchy, he’s got a little edge about him. When I watch him on tape I feel like he’s pissed off at the world, and I like that. Then you put on a tape, I think it was Kent State, and he drops into coverage like a safety, reads the quarterback’s eyes, undercuts a route, one-handed interception."