Pro-player comparisons are a great tool for getting to know a prospect before the NFL draft. They are not usually meant to set the bar for a player's career, but instead to paint the picture of that player's skill set, strengths and weaknesses.
In comparing University at Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack to Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, though, we could be talking about both his skill set and how that skill set translates to the NFL.
Each has a blend of coverage and pass-rush skills that gives them the versatility to line up all over the front seven. Their best positional fits are the same; both men projected to outside linebacker in a three-man front, or either defensive end or strong-side linebacker in a four-man front.
|Khalil Mack||6'3"||251 lbs.||33 1/4"||10 1/4"||4.65 sec||23 reps||40"||128"||7.08 sec|
|Von Miller||6'3"||246 lbs.||33 1/2"||9 1/4"||4.53 sec||21 reps||37"||126"||6.7 sec|
Source: NFL.com; Sports-Reference.com
They are both around the same size, which is considered undersized for an edge player in the NFL. Somehow, both men find a way to make it work. These comparisons are hardly new, either.
"All the talk that he's generated for himself, he certainly deserves," said Baylor head coach Art Briles back in September, via Josh Friemel of The Dallas Morning News. "He's a big-time, good football player. If I had to compare him to somebody, I watched two or three plays and said Von Miller."
He may have watched those two or three plays against Ohio State. That would make sense, since Briles' comments came after Buffalo played Ohio State in the first game of the season.
There's one key difference: Mack's first step is good, but Miller's first step is elite. Where Miller uses first-step quickness to avoid blocks, or allow a lineman to only partially block him, Mack instead uses a wide array of pass-rush moves and a powerful upper body to help him shed blocks.
The praise has poured in for Mack all season, and in December, an AFC college scouting director once again name-dropped Miller in a comparison to Mack, according to NFL Network's Albert Breer:
'He's one of the top pass rushers in the draft,' an AFC college scouting director said. 'He played his best games against the biggest opponents, and can be an [outside linebacker] in a 3-4 or a Sam [linebacker] in a 4-3. ... He's proven (what kind of player) he is.' The college director compared Mack to Von Miller from a size/speed standpoint, even if he is a tick below what the Broncos star was as a prospect.
He may be a little smaller than your average 4-3 defensive end, but he could probably play the position if required. Against Ohio State (2:54 mark in the video above), Mack put an incredible bull rush on right tackle Taylor Decker, who was starting his first career game at the position. Mack used a rip move at the end of his bull rush to get Decker out of the way and brought down quarterback Braxton Miller from behind.
He's not all brute force, though, with the quickness to get around a blocker by pulling a double move (4:58 mark), faking to the outside before changing direction to rush on the inside.
Make no mistake; Mack is not lacking burst and Miller is not lacking strength, but each is a bit more proficient in one area than the other. Some folks want to say Mack isn't explosive enough to warrant the comparison to Miller, but he flashed that burst at times (6:40 mark) and ran a 1.56-second 10-yard split in his 40-yard dash (second fastest among linebackers at the combine).
As a linebacker, Mack uses both his strength and quickness to make open-field tackles (4:16 and 9:24 marks), shedding a blocker on a perimeter run and wrapping the defender around the legs. In the first example, Mack disrupted the runner's stride, allowing his teammates to make the play; in the second example, he shed the block and brought down the runner on his own.
With his incredible level of versatility, some draft pundits have pegged him as the best prospect in this year's class. One of those pundits is NFL Network's Mike Mayock:
I'd take him with the first pick...that's how I feel about Khalil Mack. Khalil Mack can play anywhere on the front...he dominated Ohio State like nobody I've ever seen dominate them. He's explosive off the edge, he's tough, he's twitchy, he's got a little edge about him. When I watch him on tape, I feel like he's pissed off at the world. And I like that.
And then you put on the tape—I think it was Kent State—he drops into coverage like a safety. [He] reads the quarterback's eyes, undercuts the route, [makes a] one-handed interception, and I'm going, 'What can't this kid do?'
The answer, it seems, is "not a lot."
It stands to reason, then, that Miller is not the only player to whom Mack is being compared. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller compared Mack to Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for his physical ability and athleticism.
Orakpo's 6'4", 257-pound frame is similar to Mack's but a little bigger. Mack could add weight with time in an NFL training program. The Redskins linebacker also has similar versatility to Mack, although Orakpo is much better as a rusher than he is in coverage.
CBS Sports' Rob Rang compares Mack to St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, saying, "Mack is a little more versatile, but both have an excellent blend of quickness and power to be effective sacking the quarterback or stopping the run."
With such a wide range of skills, though, it seems wisest to use Mack in as many ways as possible, which should equate to an NFL impact like Miller's for the Broncos.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.