Small-school standouts rarely dominate the conversation leading up to the draft, but lately, the stars of the Mid-American Conference have been proving themselves the exception to the rule.
Last year, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher rose from relative obscurity to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The ultra-athletic offensive tackle silenced critics questioning the level of competition he faced by dominating opponents in the Senior Bowl and putting on a spectacular performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, thus justifying his position as the top prospect in the 2013 class.
This year, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is making a similar climb up the charts as draft day approaches. The MAC Defensive Player of the Year cemented his status as a first-round pick with a handful of dominant games last fall against big-school competition (Ohio State, Baylor and Connecticut) that showcased his potential as a force off the edge. Mack followed this up with a sensational effort at the combine that had some observers touting him as one of the top five prospects in the 2014 draft.
Now, I certainly understand the buzz surrounding Mack -- who only bolstered his reputation at Buffalo's pro day this week -- having watched him put on a solid showing at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against San Diego State. Although the Bulls didn't perform up to par in that game, Mack was clearly the best player on the field, even while facing double and triple teams on the edge. He dominated the point of attack with his brute strength and also flashed the speed and athleticism that made him one of college football's most disruptive defenders.
Looking at Mack's performances against big-school competition -- namely, Ohio State -- I came away impressed with his athleticism, physicality and effort. Not only did he dominate the point of attack against the Buckeyes, he also showed impressive skills as a power rusher off the edge. Mack overwhelmed blockers with his explosiveness, registering two sacks on bull rush/forklift maneuvers.
Additionally, Mack displayed superb cover skills and awareness as a dropper in zone-blitz concepts. He is an astute pattern-read defender with a knack for anticipating throws in his area. As a result, he delivered a handful of punishing shots on Ohio State receivers, putting a bow on one of the best "one-man show" performances that I've seen from a prospect.
With Mack also exhibiting overwhelming dominance against small-school competition, scouts walked away convinced that his talent would warrant top-10 consideration. Now, I might be the dissenting voice in the scouting community, but I believe Mack is best suited for a complementary role on a defense that already features a star among the front seven. I've likened Mack's game to that of Pro Bowler Ahmad Brooks in previous posts, because I see Mack, with his skill set, as more of a Robin than a Batman. While Mack certainly can take over the game at times, I don't know if he possesses the first-step quickness to be a consistently dominant rusher or playmaker off the edge.
With that in mind, I've identified five teams that would ideally suit Mack's game at the next level.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that would best utilize Mack's talents, regardless of draft position or how the rest of the pre-draft process plays out.
Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3 overall pick)
The Jaguars desperately need more playmakers to create the elite defense that Gus Bradley believes is necessary to compete in the AFC South. Mack is a disruptive force at the point of attack, possessing impressive instincts and a knack for knocking the ball loose (he recorded an NCAA-record 16 forced fumbles at Buffalo). With a versatile skill set that allows him to line up as a 4-3 Sam linebacker or at defensive end in sub-packages, Mack could become a key piece on a Jaguars D built on speed, quickness and athleticism.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7)
New coach Lovie Smith inherits a Buccaneers defense on the cusp of emerging as a dominant force in the NFC. However, the unit needs a difference maker on the edges to get over the hump. Mack would be a perfect fit as a Sam linebacker assigned to beat up the tight end in an "under" front. Additionally, Mack's skills as a pass rusher would make him a dangerous defender on blitzes or as a nickel pass rusher on obvious passing downs. The legitimate contenders in the NFC are led by heavyweight defenses; adding Mack could thrust the Buccaneers into the conversation.
Detroit Lions (No. 10)
The Lions' defense, which is led by a formidable front line, still requires a playmaker on the second level to compete with the elite teams in the NFC. Mack is a difference maker with the kind of "hard hat and lunch pail" mentality that's desperately needed in Detroit. Most importantly, he is a versatile strong-side linebacker who could augment a talented defensive line with monsters at every position. If new coach Jim Caldwell can add Mack's disruptive skills to a front seven that's as talented as any in pro football, the Lions could emerge as the team to beat in the NFC North.
Tennessee Titans (No. 11)
Ray Horton, who joined the Titans in January, has quietly developed into one of the top defensive coordinators in the business. He has a knack for building punishing units with an exotic scheme that creates big-play opportunities for disruptive defenders. Mack would be an ideal fit as a hybrid linebacker with dynamic skills as a rusher or a drop defender. Given that Mack is also adept at attacking blockers and swallowing up runners in the backfield, bringing the hard-hitting defender into the fold would make the Titans' defense a dangerous force.
New York Giants (No. 12)
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The Giants have eschewed several opportunities to upgrade their linebacker corps in previous drafts, and their lack of speed and athleticism on the second level shows up in big games against elite competition. Adding Mack would address a significant need while also helping Big Blue match up against the wide-open offenses employed by the Philadelphia Eagles and others to take advantage of the favorable rules in the passing game. Given the correlation between sound defensive football and winning games in the NFC, Mack could give the Giants an opportunity to compete in the NFC East.
What about the Houston Texans?
The Texans, who hold the No. 1 overall pick, aren't among the five teams listed because they don't have an obvious need at outside linebacker. Yes, the team is reportedly interested in South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but that's surely due to his remarkable talent and potential, and I don't see Mack in that class. Thus, I don't believe Mack would be an ideal fit in Houston.