Entering this weekend's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, there appeared to be two prevailing schools of thought where the first four or five picks in the 2014 NFL draft are concerned: either take a quarterback or eschew the signal-caller in favor of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
However, by the time all is said and done in Indianapolis, it won't be an even a little bit surprising if Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack has inserted himself squarely into the conversation among the draft's top-five overall prospects.
The Mack Truck
It certainly didn't take long for Mack to insert himself into opposing backfields in 2013.
The 6'3", 248-pounder sent a loud and clear message in Buffalo's first game of the season, exploding in Ohio Stadium against the Buckeyes:
*Returned for TD
Sure, the Bulls lost the game, but Mack was awe-inspiring in the loss. The only person who spent more time in the Ohio State backfield during the game than Mack was Buckeyes signal-caller Braxton Miller.
And he's in no hurry to see Mack again.
Urban Meyer wasn't able to remember Mack's name but came away impressed, as noted by Larry Phillips of the News-Messenger. “The guy that played, was it 46, I just know where he played. I can see him standing out there, a really, really good player,” Meyer said.
Mack spent the rest of the year impressing his way across college football. By season's end, he had hit the century mark in tackles, topped 10 sacks, intercepted three passes and been named a second-team AP All-American.
A Top-10 Lock
As Tim Graham of the Buffalo News reports, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock recently raved about Mack in a pre-combine teleconference with reporters.
It was that performance against Ohio State that first caught Mayock's eye:
The first tape I put in was Ohio State, and this kid dominated Ohio State like nobody I’ve ever seen. He’s explosive off the edge, he’s 6’3″ 248 pounds, and in today’s NFL, explosion off the edge is a primary characteristic that you need, so that’s number one. Number two, he’s stout against the run. Number three, he hustles. Number four, he’s got a little aggressive chip on his shoulder…I’ve seen him read a quarterback’s eyes, drop back into coverage, and make a one handed interception.
In fact, Mayock is so impressed with Mack's potential that he would draft him ahead of Clowney:
...if I am sitting there with a choice between him [Clowney] and Khalil Mack, I’m probably going Khalil Mack…my Khalil Mack grade is just about the same as Clowney. So if I look at the two of them and say I trust one and I am not sure about the other…then yeah…Mack to me, I love that kid, and just because he played in Buffalo, I’m banging the tables for him.
Banging the tables indeed.
Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller may not have Mack ahead of Clowney on his big board, but Miller agrees that Mack is the best of this year's bunch at linebacker.
He is explosive, strong, smart, prepared and deadly. Offenses can try to chip him with a tight end or a running back, but he's strong and smart enough to use his body to beat it. If you sit back and try to block him one-on-one, like Ohio State did with potential first-rounder Jack Mewhort, he'll embarrass your left tackle on national TV.
Linebackers are tough to scout, but Mack is just tough. And he's going to make one NFL team very lucky.
However, even as impressive and disruptive as Mack was off the edge for the Bulls, just as with any prospect there are a few dents in the proverbial fender.
|Ranker/Site||LB Rank||OVR Rank||Proj. Round|
|Matt Miller/Bleacher Report||1||6||1|
|Rob Rang/CBS Sports||1||8||1|
|Charlie Campbell/Walter Football||2||5||1|
|Eric Galko/Optimum Scouting||2||4*||1|
*QBs not included
Bleacher Report's Darren Page sees room for improvement with Mack's technique, writing that the youngster "likes to leave his feet and lunge at ball-carriers instead of driving through with his hips."
Meanwhile, Russ Lande of Sports on Earth relayed that some NFL teams have concerns about Mack's coverage skills, despite his three interceptions in 2013:
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.
With that said, Lande also writes that Mack could wind up the first defensive player selected with a strong spring, and there's no real debate among pundits that Mack is one of the top-five defensive prospects in this year's draft.
It's Showcase Time
Make no mistake, were it not for the presence of Clowney (who is a physical freak) in this year's draft, Mack would have a better-than-average shot at being the first defensive player drafted in 2014.
Mack, like Clowney, has a tantalizing combination of size, speed and strength. Such a combination appeals greatly to NFL teams, and it sets both players up very nicely for Indianapolis.
With drills that play to his strengths, it's not a stretch to predict that Mack will perform well at the combine. And if nothing else, the drills should settle the debate as to whether Mack or UCLA's Anthony Barr is the top outside linebacker prospect this season.
Of course, Sigmund Bloom of FootballGuys believes that debate was settled long ago:
Watched Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr last night, and Barr isn't in Mack's galaxy as a football player. That includes projectability.— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) February 7, 2014
However, if Mack shines at the combine and Clowney somehow falters, then things could get really interesting.
Granted, it's possible that would simply make the Houston Texans' minds up for them, effectively forcing them to draft a quarterback.
Or teams like Houston and the St. Louis Rams could consider bolstering their defense with Mack, an option that would have been unthinkable only six months ago.
My how times change.