Things have not gone well for the Oakland Raiders for a long time on or off the field. The moribund franchise plays in one of the worst stadiums in the NFL and hasn’t had a winning season or been to the playoffs since 2002.
One of the franchise’s issues has been finding talent in the draft. Either the Raiders have missed badly on their picks or traded them away for overpriced veterans.
While the jury is still out on general manager Reggie McKenzie’s 2013 draft class, he has to be overjoyed with his first pick of the 2014 NFL draft—former University of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Head coach Dennis Allen got his new Von Miller in Mack; the type of player the opposing offense must game-plan around.
“I envision his role being very similar to what we did with Von Miller,” Allen said via Raiders.com.
In some ways, Allen owes Miller for getting the job in Oakland two years ago. After one year as defensive coordinator in Denver in 2011, Allen was so impressive McKenzie gave him the job. If all goes well, Allen may owe Mack for saving that job.
Miller carried the Denver Broncos to the playoffs in 2011. It was Denver’s defensive performances that made quarterback Tim Tebow’s late-game heroics possible. With Allen sitting squarely on the hot seat after two consecutive 4-12 seasons, he finally has the type of player he needs to turn the Raiders into a winner.
If the draft success is more due to luck than skill, as Neil Paine of fivethirtyeight.com has suggested, then it’s possible that Oakland’s luck has finally turned around. According to Paine, there is a strong correlation between where a player was drafted and their career performance. This means the Raiders were likely to get a good player at No. 5 as long as they weren’t unlucky.
If the series of events that led to Mack falling to the Raiders are No. 5 is any indication, luck is already on the Raiders’ side. Just a couple weeks ago, Mack falling to the Raiders seemed highly improbable.
First, the Houston Texans decided to take Jadeveon Clowney even though he’s not a great fit for their 3-4 defense. That wasn’t surprising, but was necessary if Mack had any chance of falling to the Raiders. The St. Louis Rams didn’t trade down, which kept any team coveting Mack from coming up to get him. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars shocked everyone and gave the Raiders the biggest gift by drafting quarterback Blake Bortles.
At that point, the Raiders were going to get either wide receiver Sammy Watkins or Mack. Given the depth at wide receiver in this draft, it’s likely the preference was Mack. When the Buffalo Bills moved up for Watkins and not the player that played his college football just up the road, the Raiders had the player they wanted all along.
“Once Khalil fell to us, we had a couple of calls,” McKenzie said via Raiders.com. “At that point, I wasn’t taking any.”
The Impact of Mack
For a player who even Allen admits is similar to Miller, you can’t blame the Raiders for being excited. The Raiders have had only two picks in the first two rounds in the last two years, so infusing the roster with a top talent is something McKenzie has been unable to do.
“I think the thing that really was attractive about Khalil Mack is the fact that he understands how to rush the passer and he understands how to rush the passer with power,” Allen said via Raiders.com. “I see a lot of similarities between him and Von Miller.”
|NFL Ranks Before and After Von Miller|
|Split||Points Allowed||Yards Allowed||Sack %||Wins|
|Broncos 2010 (before Miller)||32||32||31||4|
|Broncos 2011 (with Miller)||24||20||10||8|
Getting after the quarterback was a huge problem for the Raiders in 2013. The same goes for the 2010 Broncos prior to Miller’s arrival.
The Broncos ranked dead last in points and yards allowed in 2010 prior to Miller’s arrival. They were 31st in sack percentage (note: the Raiders ranked first in 2010). In 2011 with Miller, the Broncos were 10th in sack percentage. By 2012, they ranked second in the league in that category.
Miller made an impact in a big way his rookie year. The Raiders can expect the same from Mack.
“This is an impact player,” Allen said via Raiders.com. “This guy will have an impact on our football team for the 2014 season – there is no question about that.”
Nothing to Worry About
In case anyone was afraid Mack was the second coming of Rolando McClain, or that some sort of off-the-field concerns could get in the way of his development, McKenzie made a point of saying that there were absolutely no concerns about Mack’s character.
“Off the field, he is a one,” McKenzie said via Raiders.com. ”There are no issues with him at all.”
Allen added that Mack was a “football-first guy” with a “tremendous work-ethic” and was a “team player.”
From the team’s perspective, there is nothing standing in Mack’s way of becoming a great player. Allen said the Raiders fell in love with Mack’s tape, and he has no character concerns. A data analysis done in 2012 by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective also found linebacker to be the safest to position to draft in the top half of the first round.
The media also almost universally loves Mack.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told KFAN radio (via Pro Football Talk) in February that he’d take Mack No. 1 overall.
“He’s explosive off the edge, he’s tough, he’s twitchy, he’s got a little edge about him,” Mayock said. “When I watch him on tape I feel like he’s pissed off at the world, and I like that.”
One of the great things about Mack is that he helps Oakland’s defense without hurting it in any way. The Raiders don’t have to pull out or reposition any of their best defensive players to insert Mack into the lineup.
As far as switch to the 3-4, it’s unnecessary because the 4-3 under is so similar.
The Von Miller role is a 4-3 SAM linebacker that puts his hand in the dirt on passing downs. While Moore was arguably Oakland’s best linebacker last year at SAM linebacker, he is a great candidate to flip sides and take over for Kevin Burnett at the WILL linebacker spot.
While Burnett would seem like the odd man out, the Raiders wouldn’t have to get that creative to get him on the field. Burnett was one of Oakland’s best run defenders in 2013, but he wasn’t good in coverage. Middle linebacker Nick Roach was solid against the pass, but the team’s worst run defender. It’s not hard to imagine Burnett playing in the middle on early downs with Roach playing in passing situations.
|Raiders Projected Front 7|
|WILL||MIKE (Run Downs)||MIKE (Pass Downs)||SAM|
|Sio Moore||Kevin Burnett||Nick Roach||Khalil Mack|
|RE||DT||NT (Run Downs)||LE|
|LaMarr Woodley||Antonio Smith||Pat Sims||Justin Tuck|
From a depth perspective, the Raiders also have options should a player get hurt. All four linebackers have some position flexibility and having an extra pass-rusher gives the Raiders options if a defensive lineman goes down.
On passing downs, the Raiders would take defensive tackle Pat Sims off the field and go after the quarterback with Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Mack and Moore. Those are five quality pass-rushers whom the Raiders didn't didn’t have last season to send at the quarterback.
Per ProFootbalFocus (subscription required), Sims was actually the Raiders’ best pass-rusher last season with a grade of 4.5, yet he’d likely be the one losing snaps on third down. That’s how much the Raiders have improved this offseason. The Raiders as a team graded out 26th in 2013, but they are poised for a huge improvement in 2014.
Based on how the personnel would shift around with Mack at SAM linebacker, his impact goes beyond that of his own ability. The Raiders’ coverage improves with Moore over Burnett at WILL linebacker on passing downs; their run defense improve with Burnett over Roach on rushing downs, and their pass rush improves by getting Sims off the field on passing downs.
It’s not very often a team can add a player who helps every facet of the defense. Mack is that kind of player and the Raiders should be—and are—thrilled to have him.