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Making the Leap, No. 1: Khalil Mack

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The Around The NFL crew has documented the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status.

The list concludes with No. 1, Khalil Mack.

Why Mack is on the list:


While watching the Pro Bowl with colleague Kevin Patra this year, I kept wondering why we weren't seeing Oakland's dynamic pass rusher on the field. There are plenty of snubs each year, but Mack's was akin to Odell Beckham's initial snub. The only problem was that it wasn't corrected.

Depending on who you ask, Mack was the best player at his position this past year, and according to Pro Football Focus, there were only a handful of players around the league who pressured opposing quarterbacks more frequently. Unfortunately, Mack is not regularly put in a position where he can fall backwards and catch a football with one hand, so he'll have to live on through those who have watched him star in a middling Raiders defense from a year ago.

This year, he will be making the leap to a player that cannot be ignored anymore.

Biggest strengths:


The best players in the NFL are the ones who define the clichés you hear on draft day. I can't tell you how many times I've heard analysts say a player constantly has his eyes upfield, but it didn't really make sense until I watched Mack. His initial punch and upper body strength give him the perfect distance from blocking defenders and the ability to steer his opponent. Check him out here against the Cardinals when they try to run a reverse at him.

This isn't an unusual occurrence, either. Mack sustained plenty of double teams and chips throughout the season, but was able to maintain his body balance quite well. Unlike many rushers who are a liability against the run, Mack thrives.

Pure pass rusher:


The best part about Mack is his versatility. He can make phenomenal plays look routine for a stand-up linebacker against the run, but his most natural abilities come in the pass rush. While we have no idea how much his offseason weight gain will impact his mobility, all early reports have Mack ready to take on more of a pressure role in 2015. After loading up on linebackers this offseason, perhaps Jack Del Rio is looking to make Mack something closer to what Von Miller is in Denver.

My favorite example of this was a late-game sack against the 49ers this season. Mack was running a basic stunt with Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck, but his refreshing size and speed combination took it to another level. Mack was playing against a solid -- albeit tired and beaten-up -- 49ers line and completely fooled Jonathan Martin into biting on his outside move. This is a believable and very-real threat for Mack on any snap which is why Martin drifted so heavily. He quickly realized, though, that Mack can get upfield better than just about any rush linebacker in the game right now.

So much hope for the future:


Mack suffered a bit in terms of public perception due to some relatively low sack numbers (4). But now that he's playing for a more imaginative defensive coordinator on a team that should take a major leap forward in 2015, all the basic ingredients for more sacks should be in place. (Example: There's a chance the Raiders are leading a few more games in the fourth quarter this year, resulting in more obvious passing downs for Mack to take advantage of.) Oakland should also have more protection for Mack in its front seven with the addition of second-round pick Mario Edwards, Jr.

You can pencil that Pro Bowl vote in right now.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Greg Hardy's reduced suspension, and the guys debate which players are at 'The Crossroads.'

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