Last season, Khalil Mack's position was complicated enough that Pro Football Focus had him listed as a 3-4 outside linebacker much of the season despite the fact that the Raiders ran a base 4-3. Late in the season they switched him to 4-3 outside linebacker. His 2015 position may be even more complicated. Then again, perhaps not.
This offseason Mack has put on some weight which led some to believe a position switch to defensive end was in the plans. According to Mack, however, his role will not change this season.
"I'm always used the same," said Mack, who also mentioned he will rush the passer as well as drop back into coverage.
As a 4-3 outside linebacker, 4.0 sacks is somewhat respectable. But Mack isn't a typical 4-3 outside linebacker. His coaches have said they would like to see his sack numbers go up in 2015 and Mack himself made no bones about his frustration in not putting up better sack numbers last season.
"I'll be honest, mentally it was a little frustrating," Mack said of his sack numbers. "Even then, I had talks with Justin Tuck. He let me know everybody gets lucky. It's not all just because of technique and being fundamentally sound. Everybody gets lucky and you have to know how teams are scheming against you and all those different things that come into play when going against the passing block. Then playing Peyton [Manning] twice a year and those great quarterbacks in our conference, they're not going to hold the ball as long. You've got to know what you're playing against and how to play."
The overall feeling between Mack and his coaches would suggest they plan to put him in the position to get those number up. I asked Mack if he expects to rush the passer more this season, and he said he absolutely will.
"Oh, man, yeah. That's what this game is now," Mack said emphatically. "It's a throwing game, so you're going to have more opportunities to rush the passer and that's what I'm looking forward to."
Whether Mack rushes the passer more is not as simple as whether the team is playing in a 3-4 or a 4-3. There were several times I noted during minicamps that Mack lined up at what appeared to be a straight up defensive end position in a 4-3 alignment. There were other times in the offseason he was standing up in a strongside linebacker role with some 3-4 outside linebacker mixed in.
It is clear the Raiders understand they have a special player on their hands and are looking to get the absolute most out of him. This means moving him around and putting him in the position most needed. Right now, based on personnel, that position could be defensive end.
Even his position coach, Sal Sunseri, has a background as a defensive end and linebackers coach. He was last a defensive ends coach at Florida State. Prior to that he was linebackers coach at Alabama and prior to that he was defensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers.
One thing the team did little to address this offseason was the need for a speed rushing defensive end. They drafted Mario Edwards Jr in the second round - who was coached by Sunseri at Florida State -- but he is not a speed rusher, he is more of a run stopper. His size and skillset most closely resembles a 3-4 defensive end, which would basically be a 3-tech defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense.
Compare that to the linebacking corps which from the outset looks to be the deepest position on this team, and if you want to get the best players on the field together, again it would make sense to have Mack at defensive end. Not to mention Mack also is a monster against the run.
His new defensive coordinator sees a player who, despite his already obvious talent, has room to grow.
"Going into it, you heard stories about Khalil before we came and how he was such a young talent," said Ken Norton Jr. "To get here and work with him, to talk to him, to see him show up every day, to see him have a growth mindset, to have a thought process that he's going to improve, he shows up every single play. Everybody is saying how good he is and he got four sacks, I thought to myself, ‘How many great players have four sacks.' You have to get in double digits. So he has a lot of growth to make. If they're thinking he's this good and he's done so little, imagine when he actually does what he's supposed to do. He has the work ethic. He has a ridiculous, ridiculous work ethic. In my experience again, that turns into really good football players."
Part of the "ridiculous" work he has put in was bulking up. He was already quite strong, and now he has teammates like new middle linebacker Curtis Lofton calling him a "Monster".
Reports have him bulked up to 265 pounds which, if true - and he looks it - would have him up 13 pounds from last season.
While Mack won't say how much he has gained, he admits he is up from last season. "I put on a little something," Mack said with a smile.
Along with his admission of adding what he said was "all lean muscle" which he claims will not slow him down, he made it clear where his emphasis lies this offseason, hinting again that there's perhaps more lining up with his hand in the dirt is in his future.
"When you're going against these high-caliber guys, especially going against [left tackle] Donald [Penn] every day, to have a little extra weight on them, you've got to have a little bit more to push them around. I'm looking forward to seeing how I feel."
The accolades Mack has received this offseason have been many as NFL analysts pour over his tape and his opponents step up to make it known just how good he was as a rookie.
His latest positive mention was landing at 49 overall on the NFL Network Top 100 players; an award voted on by his peers. It is quite an honor for the very humble young pass rusher.
"Oh, man. It tells me that hard work pays off in the sense that they see the hard work and effort I've put into playing these great games on this great level."
Most of the damage he did came at the line, where he had among the most run stops as well as pressure numbers in the NFL. That's where he does the most damage and that's where he is most feared. Dropping into coverage could end up just being a wrinkle to mix things up now and then. Otherwise you can expect to see him routinely in the opposing offense's backfield.