In 2014, the Houston Texans made a grave error. They drafted South Carolina super-defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (who promptly got hurt) first overall, eschewing the talents of the University of Buffalo's Khalil Mack, who many analysts (including the sage and wise Mike Mayock) felt was the best player in the draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars picked QB Blake Bortles over Mack, and the Buffalo Bills picked WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins is an excellent player, and considering Buffalo already had a fine defense with OLB Mario Williams, Watkins is the only defensible choice here.
Khalil Mack thusly fell to fifth overall, where the Raiders were more than pleased to take him. He ended the season as Pro Football Focus' second-best defensive player overall, let alone rookies, behind only Defensive Player Of The Year and NFL Network's #1 Player of 2015 JJ Watt, praise be to his name. Even still, Mack missed out on Defensive Rookie of the Year because Aaron Donald racked up a ton of sacks (9.0), and Mack was not voted a Pro Bowler because reasons. He also was snubbed for first or second-team All-Pro, but the linebackers who did make those teams were very good.
This year, however, things will be different for Mack. I, RaiderDamus, officially predict the following things have a very good chance to happen:
1) Khalil Mack will make the Pro Bowl.
2) Khalil Mack will be a first-team All-Pro.
3) Khalil Mack will be a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
The reason I feel this way this year as opposed to last year can be summed up in a single word: sacks. If you look at the All-Pro roster, sack totals were more or less used in lieu of actual research. Did a linebacker have a lot of sacks? Well then, accolades for him! Never mind that Khalil Mack, from the first day he stepped on the field, was the best run-stopping linebacker in football. Sack totals are where the money is made.
Elvis Dumervil, who was first-team All-Pro last season, is 57 years old and will fall off a cliff any day now and take the decrepit Ravens franchise with him. Justin Houston is fantastic, but he put up Lawrence Taylor numbers last year and there's little chance he replicates that. The Chiefs decided to pay him for a career year, which is usually a bad idea. The competition for Khalil Mack at OLB is going to thin out and Mack, being the cream of the crop, will rise to the top.
Mack's emphasis on run defense was necessary last year, being the only player on the Raider front seven who was good against the run. This season, he will line up behind Mario Edwards and Dan Williams and an improving Justin Ellis, so he can easily shift his focus to 'see quarterback, get quarterback'. Add this to the fact that with Amari Cooper and Clive Walford on the team, the Raiders will probably be up big on a lot of teams who will then have to abandon the run altogether (he said with a hopeful heart), and you can see how Mack can rack up double-digit sacks with relative ease.
While J.J. Watt is clearly the best defensive player in the league and was recently voted by his peers as the best player overall, he too had a career season last year. That season won't easily be repeated. He is still likely to perform at a high level, but will he continue at his DPOY level? The odds are against anybody repeating such a Herculean feat, even this guy:
If you Google the name "Khalil Mack", the first result that pops up is NFL.com's listing of Mack as the guy most likely to make the 'leap' in 2015, as Levi already wrote about. The first line of that story reads "As a rookie, Khalil Mack may have been the best player at his position." NFL writers who have had a chance to review the 2014 season film have quickly come to realize that Khalil Mack is, in fact, the best outside linebacker in football and they totally missed the boat in not voting him in as either All-Pro and/or DROY. They will not ignore him a second year in a row. And, as we know, NFL fans in general are sheep who will vote into the Pro Bowl whomever the media tells them is the best guy. The media will be talking up Khalil Mack incessantly this season and he will easily make the Pro Bowl by virtue of this coverage.
The Raiders don't have Howie Long, Chester McGlockton, Jack Tatum, Phil Villapiano, Ted Hendricks, Willie Brown or Lyle Alzado anymore. Next year there's a good chance they won't have Charles Woodson either. There will be a new face of tough Raider defense making opposing quarterbacks shake in their cleats, and his name is Khalil Mack, and Hell will come with him.