NFL Draft 2014: The linebackers

Posted Mar 13, 2014

Khalil Mack put up big numbers at the University of Buffalo, regardless of the level of competition. He was, and is, impressive enough that Mike Mayock says he would select the linebacker with the No. 1 pick on May 8.

The question was simple enough, and there were ample answers: If you were the general manager of the team holding the first overall pick in the NFL Draft on May 8, who would you take?

Jadeveon Clowney, the freakishly gifted defensive end from South Carolina? One of the top-rated quarterbacks – Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles? A left tackle to protect the quarterback’s blind side, like Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews?

Mike Mayock opted for none of the above. The analyst for the NFL Network and went for Khalil Mack (pictured above), the get-out-of-my-way linebacker from the out-of-the-way University of Buffalo.

“You talk about a kid like Clowney, who’s just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid,” Mayock said during the NFL Scouting Combine last month. “If I had a choice between the two, I think I’m taking Mack.”

And yes, Mack had heard that comment when he stepped to the podium in the media center at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“Mike Mayock is the man. He's the man, I want to prove him right,” Mack said through a smile. “I've been working hard the past 5-6 weeks and I'm ready to grind.”

Mack might have played for a smaller school, but he produced huge numbers: an NCAA career-record 16 forced fumbles; 75 tackles for losses, which tied the NCAA career record set by Western Michigan defensive end, and short-time Seahawk, Jason Babin; and 28.5 sacks.

“I put the tape on not really knowing what to expect,” Mayock said of his pre-Combine video study of Mack. “I knew he had a lot of positive reviews from around the country. But the first tape I put in was Ohio State, and he blew them up. He made plays all over the field, on the edge, dropping into coverage, explosive hustle. Then I think the next tape I put in was Kent State and he made a one-handed interception. He runs like a safety. He explodes off the edge.

“I think he’s one of the elite edge guys in the draft. But he hustles, he’s tough, he can play the run game and – unlike a lot of these guys – he can also drop in coverage. So I have yet to find a hole in his game.”

Here’s a closer look at Mack and the other linebackers that Mayock ranks in his Top 5 at the position, as well as analysis from senior analyst Rob Rang and the players’ take from the Combine:

OLB Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Mayock’s ranking: No. 1
Rang’s take: “Mack played a hybrid linebacker role in the Bulls' 3-4 scheme, seeing time with his hand on the ground and also standing up off the edge. He is built very well for the position (6-3, 251) with good functional strength and movement skills to quickly disengage blocks and easily accelerate to chase down the ballcarrier or disrupt the pocket. Mack did most of his damage against mediocre competition in the MAC, but he also showed he can match up against top tier teams with excellent games against Ohio State and Baylor in 2013. His natural skillset projects him as one of the draft's top pass rushers and probable Top 10 selection.”
Mack’s take: “My versatility helps me in a lot of ways. If you have a guy who can rush the passer, as well as drop in coverage, that covers two of the big issues on the defense.”

ILB C.J. Mosley, Alabama

Mayock’s ranking: No. 2
Rang’s take (he ranks Mosley as the top inside ’backer and No. 3 overall at the position): “His 107 tackles in 2012 were the second-highest total by an Alabama linebacker in the past 25 years (DeMeco Ryans had 126 in 2003) and 48 more than the next Tide defender. Mosley also recorded eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two interceptions. Tough and athletic, with the keenest instincts of any linebacker I've scouted since (former Seahawk) Lofa Tatupu, Mosley is constantly around the ball and is often making big plays as a result.”
Mosley’s take: “Pretty much all my talent’s on tape. Everybody who sees my tape, they know what kind of football player I am. This is all about showing my goal, working knowledge and showing myself as a person and as a player.”

OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA

Mayock’s ranking: No. 3
Rang’s take (he ranks Barr No. 2): “Powerful and athletic, Barr can be a terror off the edge. After racking up 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss as a junior, he added 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013. He earned a cupboard full of awards in the process, including the Lott Impact Trophy, first team Walter Camp All-American and first team All-Pac-12. Scouts feel that Barr is stout enough to handle strong-side duties in the 4-3 alignment but believe his best fit is as a stand-up outside linebacker in the 3-4.”
Barr’s take (when asked what UCLA coach and former Seahawks coach Jim Mora told him about the NFL): “It’s a business. College is fun and games and we can enjoy that. But when you get to the NFL, it’s business. You can also have fun doing it, but you’ve got to understand people’s jobs are on the line. You’ve got to come to work every day.”

ILB Chris Borland, Wisconsin

Mayock’s ranking: No. 4
Rang’s take (he ranks Borland No. 2 among the inside ’backers): “Despite stellar production, Borland's pedestrian size (6-foot, 248) and athleticism hurt. But there is some validity to the Zach Thomas comparisons. He lacks elite speed and range to consistently play sideline-to-sideline, but effort and motor aren't questions – his body and mind are always at full-go.”
Borland’s take: “I'm confident that I am (the most complete linebacker), and I don't know that there are a lot of players that are a better all-around athlete. I don't get maybe a lot of credit for it. I'm small, and straight-line speed is not my strong suit necessarily. But as far as what it takes to play football, I've got all it requires.”

OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

Mayock’s ranking: No. 5
Rang’s take (he ranks Shazier No. 4): “He played inside and outside in Columbus and has the versatile skillset to fill various roles. He was loved by the Buckeyes coaching staff because of his team-first approach. Shazier has instant acceleration and explosive closing burst, using outstanding edge speed and timing to disrupt the pocket. He lacks natural power to disengage blocks and needs to develop his discipline, but Shazier is a scheme diverse player who projects as a three-down weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 or as an edge rusher in a 3-4 base.”
Shazier’s take: “At the end of last season, I was about 228 (pounds). I’m at 237 now. I like where I’m at right now. Even if I can gain a little more, that would probably help. But I like where I’m at. I feel exactly the same. I have to continue to put it on the right way – not sloppy weight – and I feel I can maintain the speed and power I have.”