By Russ Lande
There is little question that much of the country's focus this week is on the Super Bowl, but for the 30 NFL teams not playing this Sunday, it's all about the 2014 NFL draft. This week, we'll be offering an introduction to five players whom we are confident will be selected within the Top 10 picks of the draft. We'll review what NFL teams know about them and what's still a mystery. Today we begin with University of Buffalo defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
Mack showed that he had the goods right off the bat when he dominated Ohio State's offensive tackles in Buffalo's season opener. Thick and powerfully built, it was routine for Mack to jolt run blockers upright with excellent hand use and hold ground because of his strength and ability to maintain proper base/leverage. Once he stood up run blockers it was surprising how easily he could shed and make the tackle on running plays despite having to defeat an offensive lineman who out-weighed him by at least 50 pounds. Not only effective making plays on runs directly at him, Mack's playing speed and explosive closing burst allowed him to track down fast ball carriers in backside pursuit. This is not to say everything was easy for Mack as he definitely struggled moving through traffic and would occasionally get bounced around. While Mack was consistent as a run defender, his impact as a pass rusher tended to come in bunches.
For a player that has consistently shown the ability to close on quarterbacks/ball-carriers explosively, Mack's first step off the ball was not as quick as expected when I reviewed video. In games evaluated he was only the first pass rusher moving 35% of the time, which is lower than most other elite college players. But Mack was a dominant and disruptive pass rusher when he was aggressive. Unlike many college defensemen who rely solely on speed and athleticism, Mack is surprisingly polished, especially for a player who was lightly recruited out of high school and played in the MAC. That refinement showed up in his ability to defeat offensive tackles with a bull rush, slap and arm over move, rip move and a nasty change of direction move back underneath/inside. Once he defeated pass blocks, he did not pause like many others, but rather closed on the quarterback with the aggressive, elite closing burst the top pass rushers naturally possess.
Although there is no doubt in my mind that Mack will end up being a top 10 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, there are definitely some concerns that I have, many of which have been expressed by NFL scouts. He made a dynamic interception and returned it for a touchdown against Ohio State and had another interception against Kent State, so many might assume NFL teams are comfortable with Mack's play in coverage, but that is not the case. I've spoken with a number of scouts who expressed to me concerns over Mack's instincts in that area and his movement skills out in space. When he drops off the ball into coverage, he has the tendency to get upright and straight-legged, which limits his ability to flip hips and change directions as quickly and smoothly. Additionally, while he reads the quarterback well, he does not always move with confidence when it comes to his zone responsibility and does not always feel/sense receivers within his area. While choosing not to participate in the Senior Bowl (his decision was due to choice, not injury) shouldn't hurt his draft stock, it definitely makes the Combine and his Pro Day more important as he still has things to prove.
Although Buffalo is a FBS football program, it is in the MAC and NFL teams will watch closely at the Combine to see how Mack works out. While many in the media will put a lot of focus on his timing/testing numbers, teams will be much more focused on how he compares to the other top pass rushers and linebackers in the positional drills. In addition to that, Mack will need to shine in team interviews so that teams feel comfortable with his ability to handle the more complex defenses he will be forced to learn and play against in the NFL. For the record, I'm not as concerned about this last point because the variety of places he lined up in Buffalo's defense that I saw on film point to his possessing excellent football intelligence.
When May 8 arrives and the NFL draft kicks off, Mack should not have to wait long before hearing his named called. In today's pass-first NFL, elite pass rushers are the hardest players to find besides quarterbacks, so they always go high. He will be competing directly with Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Barr to be the first defensive end/pass rusher selected, and if he performs well over the next three months, I believe he has a chance to be the first one selected.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.