The title alone has undoubtedly sent many fans in Rams Nation scrolling to the comment section to lambaste the mere mention of the St. Louis Rams not taking Sammy Watkins, Jadeveon Clowney, or one of the handful of top offensive line prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft. Each of those players built a compelling case for why Les Snead and Jeff Fisher should take them with the No.2 overall pick, or, at least, wherever they end up picking after trading out of that Top 5.
Sammy Watkins showcased his blazing speed (i.e. an effortless 4.43 40-time), unmatched quickness, and “top of the class” route running on Sunday. Jadeveon Clowney broke the internet by clocking a 4.53 40-time while measuring 6’5″ tall and sporting a 266 lbs. frame. Greg Robinson clearly emerged as the top offensive line prospect with his workout, while both Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan made a case for themselves as arguable Top 10 selections.
However, lost in the debate for the Rams pick is one prospect, who was equally impressive in his Combine workout: Khalil Mack.
Registering at 6’3” tall, 245 lbs., Mack has the size, muscular built, and Swiss Army knife-esque skill set to competently produce as either a 4-3 DE, 4-3 OLB, or 3-4 OLB, depending on the scheme and “need.” Mack possesses an unparalleled combination of “disruptive” ability and positional maturity, heading into the NFL Draft with more experience and more college production than any other player that will be selected in the Top 10. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a legitimate , semi-disheartening “weakness” from any scout on Mack, aside from the fact that he played in a “lesser” conference and dominated the MAC, as opposed to the SEC.
Barring any mishap between now and the NFL Draft in April, the general consensus on the University of Buffalo prospect is that he is “NFL-ready,” and primed to instantly plug-and-play at the next level.
“A havoc-wreaking rush linebacker with the burst and acceleration to excel as a right defensive end in a “40″ front, Mack has demonstrated the instincts, toughness, athletic ability and explosive power to line up at any linebacker position in an even or odd front and factor readily. Is a four-year starter who made an immediate impact upon his arrival and is well primed for the NFL game. Looks every bit the part, comes from a humble, grounded family and offers the full package to become an impact performer in the pros.” - Nolan Nawrocki, NFL.com
“Strongly put together frame with good body thickness throughout. Very good take-on strength with powerful wrists and hands, using his arm to jolt and lock out. Plays fast in pursuit with very good closing burst… Uses his length well to engage, swim and swat and uses a wide array of moves to keep blockers guessing. Active and powerful upper body to rip through blocks and won’t stay tied up long. Physical striker and hits through his target. Keeps his eyes elevated to quickly locate and track to chase and finish. Versatile skill-set and has experience lining up all over the front seven. Relentless motor and feeds off the energy of the game… didn’t miss a game due to injury in college. FBS career records for forced fumbles (16) and tackles for loss (75, tied with Jason Babin).
COMPARES TO: Robert Quinn, Rams – Mack is a little more versatile, but both have an excellent blend of quickness and power to be effective sacking the quarterback or stopping the run.” - Dane Brugler, CBS Sports
Versatility, durability, and impactfullness are the key attributes that Jeff Fisher covets for players in his defensive scheme. Moreover, Gregg Williams loves “joker”-type prospects, especially one that could potentially “fill” at four different positions in the front-seven.
Does Khalil Mack “fit” and does he fill an immediate “need” on the roster?
Well, last season, Jo-Lonn Dunbar graded out 31st among 35 eligible outside linebackers, according for Pro Football Focus. In 425 defensive snaps, Dunbar managed only four total pressures and 19 defensive stops, all while allowing an alarmingly high 100% catch rate in coverage (i.e. allowed a catch on every target). It was made clear last offseason that Fisher doesn’t hold true to the traditional “weakside” and “strongside” labels for his outside linebackers. So, at least for the Rams, a linebacker is a linebacker… and they could certainly use an upgrade to pair with James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.
Moreover, the three biggest issues for the St. Louis front-seven over the last couple of years have been 1) consistent tackling (i.e. missed tackles), 2) containing the edge, especially versus Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, and 3) creating “negative” plays (i.e. interceptions, forced fumbles, tackles for a loss, tackles for no gain, etc.). Last year, the latter of those three was not an issue, with both Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree managing five or more forced fumbles. However, despite leading the league in forced fumbles, the Rams still tied for only 10th in the NFL in takeaways, all while ranking 14th in 3rd down percentage allowed and 8th in total first downs allowed. Not good…
Adding Mack to the lineup, even with the Rams heavy reliance on the nickel package over the past two seasons, could drastically improve the team in all three of those “lacking” areas. With unmatched explosiveness, excellent “pursuit and tackle” abilities, and consistent tackling, the former Buffalo Bull could certainly sure-up a front-seven that has struggled to maintain their consistency against the run. Moreover, his record-setting ability to get into the opposing backfield could take the Rams already-Top 5 pass rush to the next (literally unstoppable) level, especially with either Chris Long or Robert Quinn demanding double-teams on the outside. Gregg Williams is the mad scientist of generating pressure on the opposing quarterback, and adding Khalil Mack to a defensive toy bag that already includes three of the Top 12 graded pass rushing 4-3 defensive ends from last year (i.e. Long, Quinn, Hayes) could be the ultimate ingredient to a Super Bowl, or at least playoff, caliber defensive unit.
Khalil Mack cannot run routes or help reduce the Rams’ utterly ridiculous drop rate in the receiving corps… Khalil Mack cannot block for Sam Bradford… Khalil Mack won’t be able to play centerfielder in the deep secondary. However, he can fill an immediate need at outside linebacker, could potentially flex as a situational pass rushing defensive lineman, and would add another “elite” playmaker to the St. Louis Rams defense if Les Snead and Jeff Fisher call his name in May.