The primary headline heading into almost any NFL draft is where the top-rated quarterbacks will fall.
The 2014 version will be no different, with playmakers Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr all expected to go early in the first round. Considering the desperate need for effective signal callers at locations like Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland, the 2014 NFL draft sets up to be all about the quarterbacks.
However, there is one storyline that deserves more recognition—the race to be the top linebacker taken.
That designation will likely come down to either Khalil Mack of Buffalo or Anthony Barr at UCLA, who are arguably the best defenders in the draft this side of Jadeveon Clowney.
There is very little to distinguish between the two superstars. In fact, they are even both listed at virtually the same size (6’3” and 248 pounds for Mack and 6’4” and 248 pounds for Barr).
Let’s dig into the accolades of each a bit more.
Khalil Mack, Buffalo
MAC linebackers don’t usually become household names during the college football season, but it was hard to ignore a player of Mack’s caliber.
The Buffalo star wreaked havoc on opponents all season and finished with 100 total tackles, 10.5 sacks and three interceptions. He was perhaps at his best in the season opener in Columbus against the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, where he tallied nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception.
To make matters even better, he ran that pick back to the house for a touchdown.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was certainly impressed, as he expressed in comments at a postgame press conference that were passed along by Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com:
The player they had, his stock in the draft just went up a little bit after playing against us. He did a very good job. He manhandled some guys and did a good job. But give credit where credit is due. The biggest issue is a fantastic football player. I mean, he could play anywhere at any school in America, that kid for Buffalo.
Mack has that coveted combination of size and speed that gives him the versatility to play in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 defensive set. He can even play defensive end if needed and is capable of covering tight ends in the passing game.
Anthony Barr, UCLA
While Mack’s numbers were absolutely astounding this season, Barr wasn’t far behind.
The UCLA defender tallied 66 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and 10 sacks. He saved his best performances for the biggest moments with two sacks against Oregon and two sacks against rival USC.
The best part about Barr’s game is his pass-rushing prowess. Much like Mack, he has that size and speed combination that allows him to either bully his way through the line or rush around the end.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports projected Mack as the No. 8 pick to the Minnesota Vikings, one spot ahead of Barr, and discussed the comparison between the two linebackers:
The feeling seems to be that Mack, more so than UCLA's Anthony Barr (another outstanding prospect), can take over games. And that's exactly the kind of edge player that new head coach Mike Zimmer will realize he needs. Yes, finding a quarterback is vital. And perhaps they'll feel the need to reach for Fresno State's Derek Carr here. But short of that, and assuming they did not learn their lesson with Christian Ponder a few years ago, landing Mack here might be the smartest thing they can do with an aging Jared Allen and Kevin Williams nearing the end.
While there is certainly some merit to the claim that Mack can take over games, Barr’s production came in a Pac-12 conference that was loaded with elite quarterbacking talent. That deserves some recognition as well and could certainly help at the next level.
Today’s NFL is built around high-octane offenses.
Rule changes have made it nearly impossible to stop wide receivers in one-on-one settings, which places even more premium on rushing the passer. While the rest of the NFL world focuses on which quarterbacks get taken where, don’t overlook the potential stars from UCLA and Buffalo.
Both Barr and Mack have NFL size and will contribute right away at the next level. They have the speed to cover tight ends or even keep up with running backs on screen passes and the strength to fill the hole and stop the run.
Both will thrive at the NFL level behind their game-changing talents.
If nothing else, those quarterbacks selected ahead of Mack and Barr better not overlook these linebackers on game day.
Note: Measurables and stats courtesy of sports-reference.com.
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