NFL

Khalil Mack Might Be The Most Underrated NFL Superstar

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Khalil Mack is having a career year in his third season in the NFL.

The Oakland Raiders defensive end has been on the fringes of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation the first two years of his career but was overshadowed by Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt just like everyone else.

This year, Mack is making a case for himself as not just the DPOY, but one of the best defensive players period regardless of year.

A lot of the DPOY discussion is likely to come down to Mack and Von Miller and without a doubt, Miller is an excellent and dominating player. Both are excellent pass rushers, but—as pointed out by Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson—Mack is a better run stuffer.

Mack has similar measurables to Miller from a size standpoint, but he is a far more stout player, relying on strength and hands to defeat blocks at the point of attack, rather than the speed and leverage that Miller does.

It has made him arguably the best run-defending edge defender in the league from day one. Last season, the gap between him and everybody else was ridiculous, with Mack ending the season on a run-defense grade of 93.8; the next-best edge defender only earned an 87.0 (Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney). Even after a relatively quiet first half of the 2016 season, Mack owns the third-highest run-defense grade among edge defenders, at 85.7.

Monson wrote his piece while Mack was just coming out of an early season slump, but since the article, the Raiders defensive end has been on fire.

I reached out to Monson on Twitter to see if he felt differently about the two, and he told me it was hard to separate them as they are currently playing, but that Mack was beginning to make more game-changing plays.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out—certainly they are both playing at a high level.

 

It’s clear that over the last six weeks, Mack has become the foundation of an emerging defensive force for the Raiders. For those outside of the media, Oakland or fantasy football, his emergence might be sudden, but it shouldn’t be.

During his first two years in the NFL, Mack proved himself to be one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL and certainly one of the top defensive ends. He is a consistent presence on both passing and rushing downs and is able to disrupt plays during both.

Sunday saw him destroy the Carolina Panthers offensive line, and according to NFL.com, he is the first player since 2009 to have a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pick six in the same game.

On the interception, Mack was pressuring the right tackle, and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw an off-balance pass, trying to get it over Mack’s head.

image courtesy of SBNation

image courtesy of SBNation

Mack extended his body and plucked the ball out of the air. Once he has the ball secured, Mack recovered his balance, turned towards the end zone and scored easily. Mack’s sure hands, great athleticism and overall nose for making plays were all on display for that interception, though you can find them on any play he’s involved in.

While it doesn’t always get written about, an offense really appreciates a defense—and a defensive player—who can play havoc with the opposing offense. Keeping the score low and making sure the other team can’t get momentum is a big help to a quarterback and his offense.

So it’s no surprise that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is among Mack’s biggest fans.

“He’s in a class of his own,” Carr told CSN Bay Area. “I’m not saying he’s better than anybody, though I think he is. I think he is the best football player I’ve ever played with and seen. I think he’s done things that no one has ever seen before. I don’t want to put him in a box. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Even in a passing league like the NFL, an impact defensive player is critical. Perhaps even more so in a league like that.

Enough to make teams think twice about grabbing a quarterback early in the NFL Draft.

When Mack entered the league in 2014, teams were still focusing on that quarterback position. Blake Bortles was a top three pick, Teddy Bridgewater was taken with the final pick in the first round (with the Minnesota Vikings trading back in to get him) and Johnny Manziel was selected by the Cleveland Browns with their second of two first-round picks.

There was a general uproar when the Houston Texans chose Jadeveon Clowney over Bortles, Bridgewater and Manziel, but looking back it was the right choice (though we could have a long discussion about Houston’s lack of a quarterback).

It also would have been the right choice if they had selected Mack, as some people speculated they might or should and have said they should have since.

Looking at that draft class and the impact of players like Mack compared to the traditional high-pick quarterbacks, it’s safe to assume some teams are re-thinking their draft choices.

While there might not be a wholesale change in philosophy—quarterbacks are always on the minds of failing teams—Mack’s success, along with the success of the second round Carr, lends credence to the idea that you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself into one position.

Guys like Mack, Clowney and more recently the New York Jets’ Leonard Williams, all show that there might be more value in early defensive players than the sometimes mediocre quarterback choices teams go for.

When it comes to young defensive players, Mack is part of a tremendous group.

Rest assured, though, he leads the charge.

 


About Andrew Garda

Andrew Garda is a freelance writer primarily covering NFL football, with frequent side trips to everything else. A member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and Pro Football Weekly. He also covers fantasy for Footballguys.com. Garda is the host of the At the Whistle podcast and has been credentialed for many NFL drafts, Senior Bowls, pro days and various NFL events.