Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. It was a disappointment to be sure, an unrealized objective from his first season in the NFL.
As always, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr knew the right thing to say.
“He was like, ‘You didn’t get Defensive Rookie of the Year so that means you have to get Defensive Player of the Year,’” Mack said this week. “(At the time) I was like ‘You know what? That’s really where my mind is, being that it’s a possibility. It’s time to shoot for it.’”
Mack certainly has talent on par with other top contenders, including Houston’s J.J. Watt, Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu, Carolina's Josh Norman and St. Louis’ Aaron Donald, who bested him in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Impact isn't the difference between this year and last -- it's tangible stats.
Mack has plenty of those this season. He leads the league with 14 sacks. He is third with 20 tackles for losses. He also has 60 tackles, two forced fumbles and is considered among the NFL’s best run defenders.
Mack has become a legitimate contender over the last three weeks. He has nine sacks in that span, including five in last week’s victory over the Denver Broncos.
[BAIR: Mack 'unbelievable' in five-sack performance vs Broncos]
Mack’s effort ranked among the best defensive performances in franchise history and garnered recognition from the casual fan, who learned what insiders have known before the stats showed up.
“He’s an elevator player,” former Raiders defensive end Howie Long said in an interview posted on the team website. “His elevator is on the second floor of a six-story building. Or he’s an iceberg player. What you’re seeing is 20 percent or 50 percent of what he can be.
“When people talk about the nuance of the quarterback position, it’s just as nuanced in terms of being a great pass rusher. I think that elevator has another three or four floors to go, and it’s an exciting prospect to watch that happen.”
Mack is learning how to best use his athleticism to win individual battles and get into the backfield. Even as the elevator goes up, technical refinement will continue.
“Pass rushers are always working on their craft,” Raiders head coach and former NFL linebacker Jack Del Rio said. “I played with Johnny Randle (in Minnesota). Johnny, he’d be in a supermarket going down the aisle and he’d be pass rushing on the old ladies trying to do their shopping. Guys that rush the quarterback, they never stop developing their skill level. I think certainly there’s a lot of upside for young guy that’s got a lot of talent that is learning the art of rushing the passer.”
Mack isn’t getting by solely on raw materials. He has some technical game, understanding how to set up and manipulate the opposition.
“It’s all about the guy you’re facing and knowing his weaknesses,” Mack said. “But at the same time, you have to know your own weaknesses, so that’s why you study film. It’s all about knowing your strengths as well and knowing that you can use the same thing over and over and it might work.”
Willpower has become an asset in key situations. That’s why 6.5 of his 14 sacks have come on third down, with one producing a forced fumble that turned into a safety.
On critical downs, Mack has a singular mindset.
“I have to beat this dude,” Mack said. “I have to beat him by any means necessary to get my team the advantage.”
By any means.
That’s become Mack’s catchphrase this season, a common refrain used to describe what it takes to win an individual battle or a football game. Being a true rah-rah guy might not be in his nature, but imparting that mindset onto those around him can be a subtle, effective form of leadership.
It’s also how Mack put the Raiders on his back against the Broncos. That was his latest and best effort in a dominant month. Another 2.5 sacks on Sunday and he sets the sack record for a four game span.
[RELATED: Raiders' Mack named AFC Defensive Player of the Week]
If he keeps doing big things down the stretch, Mack deserves to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s going to take a little bit more of what I did last week for sure,” Mack said. “But, at the same time, it’s all about playing team defense knowing that you’re teammates and everybody is on the same page, and being that leader stepping in and making sure everybody is communicating on the same page. All of those things play a part."