As we creep closer to the draft, more and more people seem to be recognizing the wisdom of Khalil Mack as the first overall pick. One of those people might even be Texans general manager Rick Smith, who controls that pick.
The outside linebacker out of Buffalo could be Smith's most attractive option on a number of fronts.
More than any other player in the draft, Mack combines dynamic playmaking ability with a low risk factor—especially for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive front.
"The miss factor is very slim with him," said a front-office man of a team with a high pick. "And the ceiling is very good. He's not raw, even though his level of competition was not great. He's a refined player. There won't be a big learning curve."
Unlike Jadeveon Clowney, Mack should be the type of player who raises the bar in a locker room. The front-office man said Mack is a "good kid." Mack's history tells scouts there are no questions about his work ethic. He is a leader in the weight room. He practices and prepares like a pro. And he is a consistent performer from game to game.
"He came into 2013 highly rated and still had a great year," an NFC college scouting director said. "That tells you about his heart."
The numbers tell you about his ability to impact games, especially on third down. He makes big plays. Mack had five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and three interceptions last season. Clowney had one forced fumble, zero recoveries and zero interceptions.
"I attribute it to hard work, just working, a mindset to take the ball away," Mack said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "I'm competitive in the worst way. Taking the ball away is a great way to win games."
I asked three front-office men who Mack reminds them of. One said Shawne Merriman. Another said Joey Porter. A third said Von Miller. All of them could get the ball out.
"Big-play guys who force fumbles and get strip sacks do it in college and can do it in pros," said a high-ranking AFC official. "J.J. Watt was like that at Wisconsin. It's instinct. It's about knowing how to do it. It's not about who the biggest athletic freak is."
Clowney helped himself at the combine by running a 4.53 40-yard dash at 266 pounds. His arms also measured in at 34.5 inches. Mack, meanwhile, ran a 4.65 weighing 15 pounds less. His arms were 1.25 inches shorter. Given Clowney's gifts, he has more potential for greatness if everything clicks for him. But Mack should not need everything to click in order to be a very good football player.
The AFC official said Mack was much more impressive in the positional drills at the combine than he was in the timed and measured events. But he still did exceptionally well in the vertical jump (40 inches, compared to 37.5 for Clowney), broad jump (10'8", to 10'4" for Clowney) and bench press (23 reps, to 21 for Clowney).
And Mack's on-field numbers from the 2013 season were almost all better than Clowney's. According to STATS Inc., Mack had 6.5 more sacks, 60 more tackles, 10 more stuffs, seven more tackles for one or two yards that did not result in a first down or touchdown and six more passes defensed. Clowney had 13 more quarterback pressures.
If the Texans hang onto their pick, there is little doubt Mack would fit their defense better. Clowney is an exceptional enough talent to do well in any front, but in order to maximize his abilities, he probably should be in a 4-3, up-the-field scheme.
"Mack in a 3-4 off the edge would be a flash player who flashes awfully fast," said another NFC front-office man. "Does Clowney really fit in a 3-4, or is he more of a Simeon Rice type?"
Some evaluators believe Mack has the versatility to play in a 4-3 or 3-4, but there are fewer questions about him at outside linebacker in a three-man front.
"In a 4-3, you might question a little where he plays," the AFC official said. "For a 3-4 team, there is no downside."
Mack said he would not mind being drafted by a 4-3 team, and that every 4-3 team he has interviewed with has talked to him about being a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end who stands up on first and second downs and rushes the passer on third down. He estimated he has played with his hand down about 40 percent of the time, and that he could carry 270 pounds if need be.
"I feel I can be effective either way," he said. "I'm a football player first. That's what I have told every GM."
Mack will be OK with whoever selects him.
"I don't think it matters if I go first," he said. "I feel like I've worked hard and shown I can be a great player and teammate. If every team knew everything I was about, I feel they would draft me. But what matters is what happens after you are picked."
Mack talks like you want the first pick in the draft to talk. He plays like you want the first pick in the draft to play. And he works like you want the first pick in the draft to work.
Now we'll see if Rick Smith sees it the same way.
• The Texans have been talking about moving down for a long time, and they still are talking about trading down, with a twist: They might not be able to deal the first pick in the draft for acceptable compensation. But they might be able to move the first pick in the second round, and sources say they have been actively shopping that selection. The Texans want to add to their inventory of picks. Their best bet to do that might be to trade the first choice of the second round, at which point teams could be jockeying to acquire a quarterback.
• Teams looking for a starting cornerback in the draft may be hard pressed to find one if they don't strike early. But they may be able to acquire a veteran in a trade. The Chiefs are believed to be willing to deal Brandon Flowers in an attempt to acquire extra draft selections. The corner made the Pro Bowl in 2013 even though he did not have his best season. Pro scouts consider him a tough, scrappy player who is an above-average cover man. Flowers' contract could make a trade difficult. He is due to earn $5.25 million in base salary this year, and at this point of the offseason, not many teams have the type of cap flexibility to acquire a player with that big a number.
• Front-office men familiar with what the Bucs are doing have no doubt Lovie Smith and Jason Licht are going to stir up the quarterback position. The question is how. Most believe they will not select a quarterback in the first round, and that they hope to move down from the seventh pick. As for Mike Glennon's future, the Bucs seem likely to send him on his way because they don't want to risk the possibility of Glennon outplaying their other quarterbacks. Some of the teams that needed quarterbacks said the Bucs had not shopped him to them. That could change quickly, though.
• NFL higher-ups expect that the 2015 draft will not be as late in May as it is this year. But a good chance exists it could be later than the draft has been in previous years. The best bet is it will be held one week earlier than it is being held this year, according to a team president. But before any decision, the league is expected to survey general managers, scouts, coaches and public relations executives to get a feel for how the delay affected them.
• At one point early in the fall, Marqise Lee from USC was considered the No. 1 wide receiver in the draft. As the draft approaches, it looks like he will be the fifth wide receiver chosen—after Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks. Lee's stock has been in decline since last season, when he was not as dynamic or consistent as he was the year before, according to one front-office man. The fact that his production dropoff might have been influenced by shoulder and knee injuries could help him, though. Compare these numbers on Lee, courtesy of STATS Inc.: In 2012, he averaged 14.6 yards per catch, compared to 13.8 yards per catch in 2013—with 15 plays of 25 yards or more, compared to seven. He had 7.8 yards after catch in 2012, compared with 6.9 last season. His drop percentage went from 6.4 in 2012 to 12.3 in 2013. Lee might have made evaluators overlook some of that if he had killed his workout. But he didn't do that. So now the question is if Lee is a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, or just a solid No. 2.
Johnny Manziel has been called the most polarizing draft prospect in many years. But he is not the only polarizing prospect in this draft. Here are some other players on whom scouts have stark differences of opinions:
Anthony Barr, UCLA OLB/DE
Argument for: One high-ranking official compared Barr to Von Miller. He thinks Barr is a top-10 talent because of his speed off the edge and great intangibles. Another called him a "freak athlete."
Argument against: Some say they would not feel comfortable choosing Barr before late in the first round. Barr is a raw product who still is learning how to play. Assuming he will learn entails risk. A general manager said Barr may be a great NFL player—but he can't say that definitively. Barr is perceived as somewhat of a one-trick pony at this point: He's a speed rusher who can chase—that's it. "He'll have tough days as a rookie," the general manager said. Barr also has not played with his hand down, so he would be a projection as a defensive end. One scout said he does not set the edge well. Another called him a "finesse player."
Terrence Brooks, Florida State S
Argument for: A national scout said Brooks is one of the top four safeties on his team's board because he has good all-around skills—he can cover and tackle fairly well. Brooks came into his own in 2013, so teams were a little late to the party with him. One front-office man said coaches have gotten high on Brooks, so his stock has crept up a bit over the last couple months. Brooks can be chosen as high as the third round.
Argument against: Some think Brooks is no better than a backup in the NFL and say they would not take him before the fifth round. "I don't understand the attraction," one talent evaluator said. "He's small and gets pushed around. He doesn't make plays on the ball."
Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama OT
Argument for: At 6'7", 322 pounds, Kouandjio has ideal size and length, and he has proven he knows what to do with it. His tape is very good. "He has shown he can stop any pass-rusher in the SEC," an AFC college scouting director said. "And he's young. He's only 20 years old, so he's going to rise." Given the position he plays, he could be chosen as high as the middle of the first round.
Argument against: Kouandjio's workout at the combine was poor. "He didn't look like a first-round pick in Indy, or even a second," said a national scout. "He was stumbling around." There also are questions about his knee. Some evaluators think Kouandjio is raw and would have been best served staying at Alabama for another season and brushing up on his techniques. "He's all over the place with his hands, and he plays high all the time," said an offensive line coach. Some say they wouldn't take Kouandjio before the middle of the second round.
Jarvis Landry, LSU WR
Argument for: He was one of the most highly recruited receivers in the country coming out of high school for a reason. Landry is a complete player who can run all the routes. He can play inside or outside. He has body control and can adjust. He plays physically. His hands are strong. He has won a lot of one-on-one matchups against tough competition. He comes through in the clutch. He is highly competitive. He has a feel.
Argument against: Landry ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the combine. He cleaned it up a little with a 4.61 at his pro day, but he clearly is no burner. Scouts say he plays faster than he times, but... "Can he win outside is the question," said an NFC college scouting director. "Half the teams are discounting him because of the 40 time; others say they like the player." Landry now is classified as a possession receiver. Those who like the tape will consider him in the second. Those who are fixed on the stopwatch will consider him more of a fourth-round pick.
Cody Latimer, Indiana WR
Argument for: Latimer has a first-round package of size (6'2", 215 pounds), strength and timed speed (4.39 40-yard dash). And there has been discussion about him as a first-rounder. It also helps that Latimer has solid hands and a powerful presence.
Argument against: The 40-yard-dash time surprised a lot of people. "He doesn't play as fast as he timed," an AFC general manager said. Most evaluators consider Latimer a possession receiver, and some said they would not take him before the third round. "I don't see dynamic ability after the catch," an NFC scout said. An AFC scouting director pointed out that Latimer, who is coming off a foot injury, was not a dominant player in the Big Ten. "Maybe at his best, he's a No. 2 receiver in the league," he said. "He needs a good position coach."
Caraun Reid, Princeton DT
Argument for: Reid showed up in the Senior Bowl to the point that some scouts think of him as a potential second-round pick. He is the type of young man teams want in their locker room. "Great kid, top intangibles," one general manager said. Another scout said he liked Reid's foot quickness and said he had the versatility to play nose tackle or 3-technique in a 4-3.
Argument against: Reid did not play against a high level of competition at Princeton, and he did not dominate enough to make scouts feel comfortable. He played well in the Senior Bowl game, but was not as impressive during practices. "He is a raw project type," said an NFC scouting director. "His awareness is so-so." Another talent evaluator said Reid has a long ways to go in terms of hand use and leverage." In the estimation of some scouts, he should not be picked before the fifth round.
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech QB
Argument for: If a team could draw up an ideal quarterback physically, the player might look like Thomas. He is big and has a cannon. He can run and is tough to bring down. He's tough and competitive. Because of these things, some think Thomas has a chance to go in the second round.
Argument against: Thomas is a streaky performer who runs hot and cold. "He is an inconsistent decision maker," a personnel director said. "His accuracy is subpar." A national scout said he would not take Thomas before the fourth round. "You never know what you'll get from him," he said. Another evaluator: "He is deliberate and robotic, and he didn't win." An AFC college director may have put it best when he said, "You can justify a high grade on him with some tape, and you can justify a low grade on him with other tape."
David Yankey, Stanford G
Argument for: "He is powerful and strong with decent balance," said a longtime scout who rates Yankey as a second-round value. Yankey also gets high marks for intangibles.
Argument against: He is not the most athletic, so Yankey is not a fit for every team. "He has been dinged because he is heavy-footed," said an NFC college scouting director. "He translates to a power scheme fine though." Yankey did not play as well in 2013 as he did previously. Some have him rated as a fourth-round pick.
• Sounds like Jonathan Martin needed someone like Kyle Long around last fall.
• By the time you finish reading this sentence, Michael Vick will have changed jersey numbers three times.
• If Johnny Manziel showed up at the Kentucky Derby in a hot air balloon looking like Tom Brady did, there is a good chance he would not be drafted. If he also went bowling with Justin Bieber like Russell Wilson did, there is a good chance he would not be invited to training camp.
• The Saints front office had a getaway trip to Vegas last weekend. What better place to prepare to roll the dice in the draft?
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.