Why Khalil Mack Should Be Defensive Player of the Year

David McCrackenFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2015

Dec 6, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) reacts after the Raiders were called for a neutral zone infraction against the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award may be the tightest race the league has seen in recent memory. With players like J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald, Tyrann Mathieu, Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly all playing at a high level this season, it's difficult to imagine just picking one player for the honor. 

But at the end of the day, when the regular season is all said and done and the playoffs are well underway, one defensive player stands out above the rest.  

And that player is Khalil Mack. 

Currently, Mack leads the NFL with 15 sacks and is also the highest-graded edge defender in the league this season, with a 94.3 rating, which is higher than the likes of Cameron Jordan (94.1), Justin Houston (92.9) and Von Miller (92.2), according to Pro Football Focus.  

His league-leading 15 sacks headline Mack's accomplishments this season, and his skills were on display against the Denver Broncos on Dec. 13 where he recorded a career-high five sacks in the game. 

Here, you can see the combination of speed and brute force as Mack obliterates Denver's blind side and collapses the pocket with immediate effect. Not only does Mack beat his opponent at the line of scrimmage, he also finds a way to get the quarterback.  

Mack's other four sacks against Denver were all impressive, and can be seen here to avoid clutter.

It's not every day that one sees a pass-rusher run sideline-to-sideline and make a play on the football, but Mack is of a different breed: one that ESPN analyst and former wide receiver Cris Carter isn't afraid to point out, going as far as comparing him to the late, great Derrick Thomas.  

Sacks will almost always generate headlines and pad resumes for a lot of players, and some will question Mack's place in the conversation for player of the year honors since five of his sacks came last week against the Denver Broncos, who seemingly couldn't stop a nosebleed. But the reality is that Mack has been so much more than a player who racks up sacks. 

In Week 8, the Oakland Raiders faced off against the New York Jets and from the first snap of the game, Mack made his presence felt immediately on running back Chris Ivory. 

Mack exploded into the backfield before Ivory knew what hit him
Mack exploded into the backfield before Ivory knew what hit himBen Margot/Associated Press

Mack exploded by Jets tight end Kellen Davis and brushed off the right tackle en route to blowing up Ivory in the backfield for a three-yard loss. SB Nation took a more in-depth look at this play and Mack's ability to defend the run, which you can see here

Mack is, by far, the highest-rated edge defender against the run in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Since entering the league in 2014, defending the run has been Mack's calling card as he struggled to generate a consistent pass rush throughout his rookie campaign, finishing his rookie season with just four sacks. 

Sack Leaders this season
Khalil MackEzekiel AnzahJ.J. WattChandler Jones
Sacks15.013.513.512.5
Tackles67396643
Forced Fumbles2414
NFL.com

Mack didn't win Defensive Rookie of the Year last season—the honor went to Aaron Donald—but he's certainly been one of the most improved players this season. 

"Any time you're in the league, the second year is always going to be better than the first," Raider defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said in an interview with Mercury News.

"Hopefully, the third is always going to be better than the second. We put him in situations to rush more, to impact the quarterback more. We felt like he was an impact player and he does certain things really well, so let's have him do that more often, and he's been fantastic."  

The very next game for Mack, he went up against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense, once again displaying his unique skill set as a pass-rusher. 

After recording another sack against the Packers on December 20, Mack and the Raiders faced off against the San Diego Chargers in an AFC West divisional battle. Mack didn't record a sack (five tackles, one pass defensed) but Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers was well aware of the second year pass-rusher before the game kicked off.  

“[Mack is] a really good player,” Rivers said in an interview with ESPN.com. “The sacks are where you get all of the hype, but he plays the run and he plays hard. He’s definitely a disruptor. He’s a guy who can ruin the game.”

For a player whose pass-rush production was questioned earlier in the season, Mack has only further elevated his game, which came at the right time for the Raiders after they lost Aldon Smith due to suspension. Mack is the primary threat for the Raiders' opposition, but he still finds a way to get the job done. 

The argument can be made for Donald and Watt, and any of the other aforementioned players who have all had All-Pro seasons to date, for Defensive Player of the Year, but Mack is a game-wrecker and has shown transcendent talent at the pass-rushing position that has earned him his first Pro Bowl selection.  

In only his second year in the league, Mack has proven himself as a dominant force in the NFL, which is why he is deserving of this award.