Khalil Mack was believed to be an NFL-ready linebacker heading into the draft. That was the expectation when the Raiders selected him No. 5 overall, that he could start and produce right away.
Looking back on the 2014 season, there’s no arguing his immediate, profound impact on the Raiders defense and the franchise as a whole.
Mack was awesome as a rookie, admired by teammates and opponents alike. His dominance was evident on film and at times to the naked eye.
Mack hopes his play was good enough to earn defensive rookie of the year honors.
“That’s always been a goal of mine,” Mack said after a season-ending loss at Denver. “But my main goal is to win games. As far as the rookie of the year, goes, it is what it is. We’ll see.”
We’ll see who wins on Saturday evening during an NFL awards show taking place in Arizona on Super Bowl eve. Mack ranks high among the favorites, though competition will be stiff.
Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley and St. Louis defensive tackle Aaron Donald are also in a tight three-man race. NFL Network asked 10 in-house analysts who should win the award. Mosley got four votes. Donald and Mack had three each. Bottom line: It’s going to be close.
While there’s a case to be made for all three, Mack made a significant impact. He had 76 tackles, four sacks, three passes defensed as a forced fumble. He had 16 tackles for loss, including an NFL-best 11 against the run.
Respected analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked him highest among 4-3 outside linebackers and received the highest season grade of any outside linebacker, regardless of defensive alignment. He started every game and played an astonished 1,034 snaps for a struggling 3-13 squad.
“I feel like I improved week by week,” Mack said after the Broncos loss. “That’s the goal for any player, especially for a rookie. I want my impact on the game to continually grow.”
It certainly did. He didn’t have a sack through 10 weeks, and had four down the stretch. Mack had 52 pressures, hits or sacks over the course of the season.
While No. 52 jumps off the film, Mosley and Donald had flashier stats.
Position must be taken into account when comparing numbers – Mosley’s an inside linebacker, of course he has a ton of tackles – but those guys are strong seasons as well.
Mosley started all 16 games and had 133 tackles, three sacks, a force fumble and two interceptions for a Ravens team that made the postseason.
Donald had 48 tackles (a lot for a defensive tackle), two forced fumbles and a whopping nine sacks. Like Mack, Donald was Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated player at his position. He did all that damage in just 724 snaps.
It’s tough to call Mack the favorite considering his competition, but it won’t be a shock if he becomes the defensive rookie of the year. No matter what happens Saturday night, hardware won’t validate his season. His impact is clear, with or without a trophy in the case.
“I’m very conscious about giving young guys praise and who I liken them to,” Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck said Thursday in an interview with Sirius XM NFL radio. “But, saying that, I am a history buff and I’ve watched a lot of film on guys like Derrick Thomas and Lawrence Taylor. I’m not saying that he will be that player, but he’s capable of being that player.
“Believe me, I know what kind of praise I just gave him. I know what category I potentially put him into. But, the thing I love about Khalil, that people don’t get to see every day, is not the fact that he’s a physical specimen. It’s the fact that he’s smart. He understands the game, and understands that he doesn’t know it all. From my experience, guys like that are going to be very successful. … Barring injury, I have no problem saying he has the capability to be one of the best defensive players in this league for a long time.”