UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack have gone back and forth over the last few months vying for top billing as the best rush linebacker in this draft. These dominant defenders have etched an enduring mark on their respective schools while hoping to continue such prominence far into their NFL careers. Come May 8, one of these guys will be selected before the other.
Excitement for the 2014 NFL draft is building and the final stages of the predraft process wind down. This year’s class is considered to be one of the deepest in recent memory with plenty of elite talent and solid positional depth that runs well into the middle-to-late rounds.
Somewhere atop the list of elite names, two highly touted rush linebackers await their NFL destiny, each slated to go early on Day 1.
But which one is the better prospect?
Answering this critical question is the task for each GM in need of a stand-up pass-rusher, who must place their careers on the line with a decision that could either catapult the team to the next level or cloak the organization in incompetence.
With such stakes on the line, it seems like a good idea to take a close side-by-side look at these two prospects and figure out for ourselves which one is really the best.
When it comes to breaking down the NFL draft and pass-rushers, as a former Pac-10 defensive end and NFL linebacker, few people are more qualified.
To start, let's compare the physical tools each prospect has to work with. These tools represent the foundation for everything a football player has to work with from a physical standpoint.
|Player||Height||Weight||Arm Length||Hand Size||Bench 225||Vertical Jump||Broad Jump||40||3-Cone||Short Shuttle|
NFL Scouting Combine and pro days
Note: 40-yard dash times were generated from an average between their combine and pro day results.
So who wins the side-by-side in measurables alone?
In order to figure this out, I use a comprehensive ranking system that combines all of the prospect’s physical tools into one cumulative, numeric grade, seen in the chart below.
|Player||Height Grade||Arm/Hand Grade||Dynamic Speed||Explosion Grade||Speed/ Weight ratio||Total Measurable Grade|
NFL Combine and pro days
Oftentimes, people put too much emphasis on a player's 40-yard dash when it is only one of three times recorded. Dynamic speed equals the combined average of a prospect's 40-yard dash, short shuttle and three-cone drills. This allows for a better comparison of the straight-ahead, lateral and change-of-direction speed of any given prospect.
This is a simple formula that takes the prospect's combined number of bench reps, vertical jump and broad jump and adds them together for a single number. This gives a more complete gauge of the prospect's explosive capabilities of both his upper and lower body.
This is based off of a formula that takes into account the prospect's weight and the average of all three speed times (dynamic speed) to produce a number that reflects a player's speed relative to his body weight.
The goal is to put prospects on an even playing field while revealing how well a player carries his weight. This also represents the measure that considers how big a player is, which, as we know, is important in football.
To put those numbers into context, you can look back at the top measurable grades from the last two draft classes here.
So how have these physical tools aided in their ability to produce at the college level?
Let's take another side-by-side comparison and see how they measure up in terms of the end result on a football field.
|Player||INTs/ Game||Forced Fumbles/ Game||Sacks/ Game||PBU's/ Game||QB Hurries/ Game||TFLs/ Game||Tackles/ Game|
It's important to note that Anthony Barr played on the offensive side of the ball for his first two years at UCLA. With this in mind, his stats were derived using only his last two seasons as a Bruin, which totaled 27 games.
Mack played in 48 games over four years while at Buffalo, and his stats from each year were factored in.
Considering most collegiate athletes take a few years before they can make a sizable contribution, the fact that we averaged in Mack's freshman and sophomore years could be considered a way to account for the lesser competition in the Mid-American Conference.
Though these players are close in production, the edge here clearly goes to Khalil Mack for taking five out of the seven listed categories.
Now that we have a good idea who has the better physical tools and college production, let’s head over to the tape and handle this thing one category at a time.
Each category below has been chosen because they represent a critical element of emphasis when scouting an edge-rusher. Like the physical tools, each observable skill set has been numerically graded on a scale from 1-10—the higher the number, the better the grade. An average score is a 6, while a perfect 10 is nearly unattainable.
Mack is the more willing and capable tackler who wraps up ball-carriers with his powerful arms and aggression.
Barr often fails to wrap up successfully and shows reluctance to dive for ball-carriers in traffic.
Barr has long strides and a quick first step up the field, while Mack prefers to feel out the play a bit before kicking it into second gear.
Barr was given a generous grade here, considering how often he can be seen glued to a blocker with little to no activity with his hands or feet. But when he uses his length to extend away from a block, he tends to separate well.
Mack has quick, active feet and hands that makes if difficult for blockers to latch on.
Vision, instincts and quickness all seem to play a hand here for Khalil Mack. Barr relies on his speed around the edge to get penetration, while Mack can enter from any gap on the line.
Neither of these prospects are spectacular at holding the line and anchoring in against the run, but Mack has the slight edge here.
Barr can be seen on tape getting driven back of the line more often than you would like and doesn't seem interested in asserting his power against blockers.
Neither of these players have very good hand technique against blockers, but Khalil Mack makes up for it with active hands that sync nicely with his feet and overall intent.
Barr's hands are best when he is on either side of a blocker displaying an effective swipe move and swim technique, but he becomes a deer in headlights when the blocker meets him head on.
Turning the Corner
Barr finally has an edge on Mack in a category. This is where Barr is at his best, using his length and quickness to beat tackles to the point. He has the requisite flexion in his hips to bend around a tight corner.
Mack seems less experienced and comfortable with a straight speed rush and relies more on his ability to feel out the quarterback as the play develops.
Mack is impressive with his jittery feet that he times up perfectly in order to catch blockers off balance.
Barr has a limited arsenal as a finesse pass-rusher despite this being his primary style of play.
Who would you rather have on your team?
Neither prospect excels here, but Khalil Mack shows off a much more effective bull rush with his functional strength, intensity and leg drive. A great example of this power comes in the latter portion of the Ohio State game.
Barr struggles to get push or collapse a pocket with power. This is just not his style of play, and would require a level of energy expenditure that he doesn't seem comfortable with.
This is one of the better aspects to Mack's pass-rushing ability. He never seems to give up on a rush and routinely opts for his Plan B.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure Barr even has a Plan B, unless you count standing in place while holding onto an offensive lineman.
Mack has earned high marks in toughness for his willingness to throw his body around recklessly while at the same time staying off the injury list.
Barr plays much more cautiously than Mack but has managed to stay available throughout his career.
It would be hard for anyone to watch tape of these two prospects and say Anthony Barr has a better motor or gives more effort than Khalil Mack. This is a huge component to predicting a player's success at the next level.
Barr can be seen frequently getting lost in read-option offenses as the ball-carrier runs right past him without him knowing.
Mack, on the other hand, shows impressive awareness and a great feel for diagnosing the play.
Average Tape Grade
As you can see, Mack graded higher than Barr in tape study, production and overall physical tools, which is partly why I have so much concern with Anthony Barr being considered a top-10 selection in the draft. I do think he can become a solid NFL starter based on his tremendous athletic gifts. But teams looking for a defensive star should pick the guy from Buffalo.
Clearly, Khalil Mack has tremendous potential for being able to dominate in a side-by-side comparison over a top-10 prospect who plays the exact same position.
For all of these reasons and more, Mack is what I would consider a complete prospect and a transcendent football player.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.
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