Can Khalil Mack Become a Great Pass Rusher?

Khalil Mack had a good rookie season, catching the attention of players and coaches around the league. For what it’s worth, on NFL Network’s Top-100 series, he was voted the 49th best player in the NFL. These rankings are based solely on votes by fellow NFL players. Not bad for a rookie who was only able to rack up 4 sacks in 16 games. So what is it that has players excited about Mack?

First, it’s his combination of physicality, explosiveness and athleticism. He’s shown the ability to get low, play with great leverage, and drive blockers backwards. This is especially true in the running game, where he was at his best in 2014.

Mack is a line-of-scrimmage player. He predominantly played as a strong-side linebacker during his rookie season. As a defense, you want your strong-side linebacker to be someone who can hold the point of attack, set the edge, and even drive blockers back into the running back’s lap. Mack was more than up to the challenge last season. A significant part of what made him so good against the run was that he rarely strayed from his assignment. He didn’t try to play the hero. Instead, he had no problem taking on his blocker with the correct shoulder and forcing the running back inside where other defenders could make the tackle. Overall, Mack showed great discipline in the running game, especially for a rookie.

In sub-packages, the Raiders utilized Mack’s size and strength in their front-4, using him as a pass-rushing defensive end. As mentioned above, he only notched 4 sacks all season, though. As disciplined and technically sound as Mack was as a run defender, he was equally as raw of a pass rusher.

On film, it’s easy to see Mack’s power and athleticism as he moves, and this sometimes leads to him getting close to the quarterback. However, he doesn’t have many pass-rushing moves. Of the 4 sacks Mack registered in his rookie season, two came on well-executed stunts that left Mack with a clear lane to the quarterback. Another one came after Mack had initially rushed, been pushed around the pocket, and then hustled back to tackle the quarterback for a late-in-the-down sack. Only one sack all season came when Mack legitimately beat his man 1-on-1. Overall, you wouldn’t say he was able to generate constant pressure on the quarterback.

As we mentioned in our article last week about Justin Houston, there are a lot of powerful and athletic pass rushers in the NFL. What separates the great ones from the mediocre ones is their mastery of the subtleties of the position. For instance, hand placement and usage is vital to success. Additionally, the best pass rushers have the ability to read their blocker and attack where they’re vulnerable. They can get their blocker off balance, get him to cross his feet, or catch him with one foot in the air and then pounce. Understanding how to do this will be vital for Mack’s much needed improvement as a pass rusher in his 2nd season and beyond.

The good news for the Raiders is that Mack is among the most physically gifted young defenders in the league. He still has a chance to master the techniques of rushing the passer, just as he has of defending the run.

Not to mention, many of the great pass rushers of the last 30 years didn’t make the jump until after their first season in the league. Bruce Smith, the NFL’s all-time career sack leader, only had 6.5 sacks in his rookie season. He had 15.0 his 2nd year. Chris Doleman (4th all time) had 0.5 sacks, then 3.0 sacks before getting 11.0 in his 3rd season. Michael Strahan didn’t get double-digit sacks until his 5th season. Justin Houston had 5.5 his rookie year before racking up 10.0, 11.0, and then 22.0 last season. J.J. Watt had 5.5 his rookie year, then became the only player in NFL history to notch two separate 20-sack seasons. The point here is that history is filled with plenty of examples of great defensive talents who didn’t become great pass rushers until at least their 2nd season. This is what the Raiders are hoping will be the case with Mack.

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