A linebacker who was one of college football's best defensive players over the last three years is Khalil Mack from the University of Buffalo. Mack was rated as a two star recruit out of high school with his only scholarship offer coming from the Buffalo Bulls.
The minute he stepped on the field at Buffalo he was a force in the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC). After a redshirt year in 2009, Mack earned 3rd-team All-MAC honors recording 68 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, eight QB hurries, two forced fumbles and 10 pass breakups. He followed up a good redshirt freshman year with an even better sophomore year in 2011. Mack put up 64 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 13 QB hurries, five fumbles, an interception and a blocked kick. He earned 1st-team All-MAC. In 2012 Mack missed the first game of the year for violating team rules. Despite this Mack had 94 total tackles, 20 TFL, 8 sacks and four force fumbles earning 1st-team All-MAC honors again. He finally received national attention in 2013 earning 1st- team All-American honors, being named the 2013 MAC defensive player of the year and earning the Lambert Award which is given to the nation's top linebacker. These awards came after a season where Mack had 100 total tackles, 19 TFL, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, seven pass breakups, three interceptions and two touchdowns. Mack finished his career tied for the NCAA career record for tackles for loss (75) and set a new record for forced fumbles (16).
Weighing in at 6-foot-3 248 pounds Khalil Mack looks the part of an NFL linebacker. He has an incredibly muscular build with long arms. There are a lot of strong points to Mack's game but none stronger than his motor and demeanor on the field. He is an aggressive player on the field. He seemingly enjoys overpowering his opponent, and plays nasty. Possessing a non-stop motor, he feeds off the energy of the game. He sets a physical tone early in games and backs it up for four quarters.
Mack has an explosive lower body and fluid lateral movement skills that make him a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. His quickness also helps him as a pass rusher. An incredibly smart pass rusher, Mack uses this incredibly athleticism in a variety of ways. He shows the ability to come of the line of scrimmage quickly or he will come off the line slow and then accelerate when the tackle sets inside. He sees the chip blocks and works his route around that. Mack also uses a variety of pass rush moves.
In this play Mack perfectly executes the chop, dip and rip. When the offensive tackle puts his hands on him, he chops them down. Then he will dip his should and rips through the block on his third step. By his fifth step he has reached the quarterback which is ideal for any pass rusher. Mack's two favorite pass rush moves are the bull rush and the swim move. His bull rush is surprisingly strong despite his size because he is able to convert his full momentum into functional power.
Mack also excels at taking on blockers. He has a strong upper body and jolts the blocker back with his initial punch. After the punch Mack uses a variety of moves to disengage from blocks. The following highlights this.
On this play Mack appears to have zone responsibility in the flat. When the TE releases to the flat as a blocker, Mack follows. He sees the QB eye the RB on a quick swing pass and he engages the TE. Using good hand placement and a strong upper body he gets separation from the blocker. Once he gets the separation then he uses his athleticism to get past the blocker.
In coverage Mack shows excellent awareness with zone concepts. His vision is superb and he seemingly is always watching the quarterback's eyes. In this play, Mack awareness is shown.
On this play the offensive linemen immediately attempts to cut Mack. Doing a good job of using his hands to beat the cut Mack is immediately aware that the cut block means there is likely going to be a short pass to his side. Mack has his head up and watches the QBs eyes. Following the QBs Mack flows right into the path of the quick pass. He intercepts the ball and displays excellent speed to take it to the house. This isn't the only example of Mack's awareness. There are numerous times where Mack has underneath coverage and follows the QBs eyes to make a play on the ball. Most notably against Massachusetts, Mack had a short zone and flowed underneath of a curl route. He intercepted the ball and once again took it back for a score. Coverage is definitely not a weakness for Mack.
Mack has very little weakness in his game but there are some that exist. As a pass rusher I would like to see him use his rip move more consistently. As I highlighted, his rip move is effective when he uses it. His go to move in college however seems to be the bull rush or the swim. In the NFL, veteran offensive tackles are going to take advantage of the swim move and won't be bull rushed as easily. Like nearly every college pass rusher he could also develop his counter move better. Mack is more of a smart pass rusher waiting for the linemen to tip their hand before committing to a pass rush option. Unfortunately that means there is little film of him exploding off of the line with his speed rush. This does call into question whether or not he has an elite first step or just a pretty good one. (Trivial I understand but important when deciding what position he fits best) In coverage Mack looks good in zone but in man coverage he can do a better job at route recognition and footwork. He allows too much separation on the receivers break but has the acceleration to help make up for it.
His biggest weakness is in space. He needs to do a better job of anticipating what the ball carrier is going to do. On tape there are a lot of times where he is slow to react to the runner's moves and has to use his superior athleticism to make a play. The amount of athletes he will see in the NFL will be far greater than they were in the Mid-Atlantic Conference. This brings up the issue of the level of competition he played against.
Khalil Mack is a very enticing prospect. He plays with a nasty demeanor, has good strength and impressive movement skills. He is also a player who shows above average awareness, good football intelligence and an incredibly high motor. With his body type Mack has the ability to play every linebacker position in the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 defense .With his strength he'd be able to play the elephant position in the 4-3 as well. That type versatility will make Mack a hot commodity when the draft comes around. Some teams will question the level of competition he faced but when Mack did play high level competition he stepped up to the challenge.
Mack is the best defensive player in this draft and it isn't even close. He might even be competing with Jake Matthews and Sammy Watkins as the best overall player in the entire draft. The Steelers have had their share of success with linebackers out of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, (Jack Lambert and James Harrison both played at Kent State) and if they get a chance to grab Mack they should send in their pick as fast as possible.
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