A quick look at the big boards from various NFL draft experts confirms what's already a well-known fact: The top-rated college teams and those from power conferences tend to produce the most coveted pro prospects.
The 2014 NFL draft is shaping up to continue that trend, with names like Blake Bortles, Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel dominating the tops of mock drafts and pick predictions.
And then there's Khalil Mack, the most intriguing name in this year's draft.
While insiders and scouts have known for a while about Mack, the 6'3", 251-pound linebacker from Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference is still catching on with fans with a month to go before the draft.
There weren't many chances to catch Mack in action on television this past season, which tends to be the way the casual football fan evaluates talent. But when he did get on TV (such as in the season opener at Ohio State) he was nothing short of impressive.
Mack registered 2.5 sacks and an interception against the Buckeyes, returning the pick 45 yards for a score. That performance got him on to the radar, and he's stayed on it ever since.
He finished his career with 75 tackles for loss and 16 forced fumbles, numbers that were hard to ignore no matter which program Mack played for.
Mack is described by experts as one of the most versatile front-seven defenders to come down the pike in years. ESPN's Mel Kiper—who has him No. 3 overall on his big board (subscription required)—says Mack is "capable of rushing the passer with quickness and power, or dropping into coverage with a great ability to shed tackles and make plays in the open field," while FoxSports.com senior national writer Peter Schrager said Mack plays both angry and smart.
He also apparently has a great way of expressing his feelings about not getting much credit from the makers of EA Sports' most recent college football video game, according to Schrager:
Just spoke w/ NFL exec. Tells me Khalil Mack wore no. 46 at Buffalo b/c that's what his rating on the EA Sports NCAA football game was.— P. Schrager (@PSchrags) April 6, 2014
Mack is considered a dark horse candidate to be taken No. 1 by the Houston Texans, according to CBSSports.com's Rob Rang. It's a sentiment echoed by many experts, including NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock, who went on record back in February that he would pick Mack No. 1 if he were drafting for Houston.
Numbers and physical attributes aside, what makes Mack such an intriguing pick is his ability to fit in well with either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, thus making him more attractive to teams that might not have a single specific need up front. Instead of putting all their eggs in one basket with one prospect, Mack's skills make him like two players in one selection.
Put simply: Mack could wash out at one position, but if he excels at another he avoids being the kind of high-pick bust that keeps NFL player personnel people up at night.
After spending four years toiling mostly in anonymity in upstate New York, Mack says he's willing to do whatever it takes to be a team's choice to build around.
"I told (teams) I can play defensive end if they need me to," Mack told Sports Illustrated's Don Banks. "I don't want to limit myself to just playing one specific thing. I feel like that's the biggest thing for me."
Even if he doesn't go No. 1, Mack is not going to last long on May 8, the first day of the 2014 NFL draft. Recent mock drafts by noted experts have him going no lower than seventh.
|Expert||Projected Pick Number and Team|
|Mike Huguenin, CBSSports.com||No. 7, Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|Mel Kiper, ESPN||No. 1, Houston Texans|
|Matt Miller, Bleacher Report||No. 5, Oakland Raiders|
|Rob Rang, NFL.com||No. 3, Jacksonville Jaguars|
Bleacher Report, ESPN.com, NFL.com, CBSSports.com
The unknown quantity from the MAC isn't a new thing; in fact, it has almost become an annual Easter egg buried within each year's draft. Last season was maybe the most surprising of the MAC breakouts, as Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher parlayed a 7-6 record and minimal TV exposure into the No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs.