In any other year or on a better team, Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack would be the consensus Defensive Rookie of the Year. He may still win it, but he’s in a tight race with St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
One thing is for sure, Mack doesn’t need to win the award to validate that he’s more than just a Rookie of the Year talent—especially for the Raiders. Mack is a special player and will be for years to come.
Mack’s play has even taken some of the sting out of Oakland’s dismal year. Mack is a foundation player and the cornerstone by which the Raiders hope to set all the other stones on their defense.
If you watch Mack and talk about him long enough, you’ll run out of ways to describe just how good he is. Mack can already be favorably compared to the best players in the game—not just rookies.
“Every week, one of the teams I watch early on is the Raider defense. And the reason I want to watch is Khalil Mack,” said ESPN analyst Merril Hoge in mid-December. “He’s not just one of the best rookies to come out, he’s the best linebacker in the National Football League, and he is the best against the run.”
|Stat||Value||Pos. Rank||NFL Rank|
|Total Pressures (PFF)||53||2||19|
|Pro Football Focus, TeamRankings.com, STATS, INC.|
As much as ESPN analysts like Hoge might be prone to hyperbole, this particular statement is actually supportable with stats and video. Hoge is actually echoing the sentiment of just about everyone who has seen Mack play more than a single game.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mack grades out second to only J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans among all defenders. That means he grades out higher than players like Justin Houston and Von Miller. Mack might not quite be the sack artist they are, but he’s more dominant in the run game.
Mack is currently second in the league with 11.5 stuffs, according to STATS, INC.—defined as tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. That’s just a half-stuff behind Watt’s league-leading 12. When you add in Mack’s four sacks, he has 16 tackles for a loss.
As a pass-rusher, Mack is only starting to scratch the surface of his potential. Pro Football Focus has Mack with four sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries. The Raiders coaches have unofficially credited him with 48 hurries and 23 quarterback hits, and he leads the team in both categories.
Mack has already gained a lot of respect around the league in just a short amount of time. He was the only rookie selected to the 2014 USA Football All-Fundamentals Team by the panel of Hoge, Charles Davis, Herm Edwards, Carl Peterson and Bill Polian.
Coaches and players alike are taking notice of him, and he usually becomes a topic of conversation for the opposing team. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had many nice things to say about Mack on Oct. 29, 2014, just days before his team faced the Raiders:
I think he’s really good. He jumps off the film. Every one of our coaches, when they break up and start looking at the Raiders and taking seriously what they’re doing well, everybody comes back talking about him. He’s almost unblockable and he’s got a great motor. He’s fast, he’s tough, he’s instinctive. We think he’s an obvious factor.
Three days earlier, the Cleveland Browns were signing Mack’s praises after beating the Raiders 23-13. Mack had one of his best games of the season that day, and quarterback Brian Hoyer didn’t hold back his praise for the rookie.
Talking to the guys in the locker room, he gained the respect of everybody on our team. That guy 52, Khalil Mack, is one of the best players we’ve gone against this year and that’s a unanimous decision in that locker room. He gained all of our respect, and we knew coming in he was going to be a tough player.
Mack has also earned the respect of his veteran teammates—from safety Charles Woodson to defensive end Justin Tuck and defensive tackle Antonio Smith. That’s a testament to not only Mack’s talent, but also how he works.
“That's my guy," Tuck said after the Raiders win over the Bills Sunday, via Marcus Thompson II of the San Jose Mercury News. "Watching some of the things he's able to do, it's exciting. Because I know what kind of player he can turn into."
Of all players, Woodson should be able to recognize greatness when he sees it. Woodson was the Raiders’ first and only Defensive Rookie of the Year back in 1998, and the team would go to the playoffs in three of the following four seasons and appear in one Super Bowl.
"Dude's going to be special," Woodson said via Thompson. "The biggest jump any player makes is from his first year to his second year. You'll see a big jump out of him."
It’s almost scary to think how good Mack can be if he gets better and makes a big jump because he’s already being compared to things that aren’t human. He’s already so good that opponents are game-planning for him, and they still can’t stop him from destroying their plans on Sundays.
"That boy is a young animal,” Smith said via Thompson. “He does some things out there on the field that looks almost impossible."
It’s almost hard to believe Mack is human with the way he’s been described by opponents, teammates and coaches on both sides of the line. If this seems like a fluff piece, it’s because you’d be hard-pressed to find a negative statement about him.
After watching Mack destroy the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, it’s easy to see why. Mack was a big reason the Raiders only allowed 13 rushing yards and forced Kyle Orton to throw two interceptions.
On the Bills’ very first offensive play, Mack tackled running back Fred Jackson for a loss even though the officials incorrectly ruled that Jackson got back to the original line of scrimmage. Mack beat the block of the backside tight end and met Jackson a full yard behind the line.
While the rest of Oakland’s defensive line lost ground, they at least forced Jackson to cut back where Mack was waiting for him. It got to the point in the game that the Bills started using two players to block Mack and they still couldn’t keep him from wreaking havoc.
On 3rd-and-8 with just over four minutes left in the first half, the Raiders rushed just four players and dropped seven into coverage. Mack put an inside move on the right tackle Seantrel Henderson and evaded Jackson, who had stayed in on that side to block.
If Orton had time, he had wide receiver Chris Hogan open after he got away with a push-off. An accurate pass, and Hogan may have been able to run for the first down, but Mack hit Orton’s arm and the ball popped up into the air and landed incomplete. The Bills were actually lucky the Raiders didn’t get another interception off the tip.
Sunday’s game was a great example of how opposing offenses have schemed to take Mack out plays. It was also a great example of Mack’s development as a pass-rusher. The Bills made an effort to run plays away from Mack and to leave extra blockers in to deal with him, and he was still was very disruptive.
Mack is the type of talent that could make an unattractive job in Oakland an attractive one. Mack is also the type of player other players are going to want to play with. If the Raiders turn a corner next season, there’s a good chance he will have a lot to do with it directly and indirectly.
If that does happen, Mack will go from uber-talented rookie to franchise savoir in an eye flash. For now, Mack’s talent is worthy of celebration for a fanbase that hasn’t had much to celebrate over what seems like 2,014 years, but has actually just been 12 frustrating seasons.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and quotes obtained from the Oakland Raiders media relations department.