Following the 2014 NFL Draft, Raiders fifth overall pick Khalil Mack came with high hopes from both coaches and the fans. Halfway through his rookie season, coaches and players around the NFL had already begun to realize that Mack was a special player.
"One of the best players we've gone against this year, and that's a unanimous decision in the locker room." - Former Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer after playing Mack and the Raiders in week eight last season.
"I think he is really good. He jumps off film. He is almost unblockable and he's got a great motor. He's fast, he's tough, and he's instinctive." - Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll three days prior to his team's week nine game against the Raiders.
"He is playing like the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He's a spectacular football player. You notice it on film, and I've got a lot of respect for his game." - Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson added.
"He's got a very explosive first step. He's everything you want in a linebacker. He's the full package. When you build a defensive player like in Madden, you're probably going to make someone similar to Khalil Mack" - Patriots fullback James Develin said on NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2014. He faced Mack and the Raiders in week three of last season.
"The guy's built like a tank." - Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
His sack numbers (4.0) weren't outstanding, but by most any other measure, he was meeting or exceeding the high expectations placed on him when he was made the fifth overall pick.
Pro Football Focus gave Mack the second highest 2014 grade (55.3) of any positon, behind only Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. According to PFF charting, Mack was second only to Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers in QB hits (10) and hurries (40), fourth in sacks (4.0), and 7th in stops (48). He was also second in batted passes (3). His 14 tackles for loss were bettered by only DeAndre Levy and Lavonte David (16 apiece).
Mack went on to be named runner up Defensive Rookie of the Year and received numerous accolades:
The expectation of Mack continued to build throughout the off-season and he carried his dominance over to the 2015 preseason.
Over the first three preseason games of the 2015 season, Mack had a PFF grade of +15.5 which was the highest grade of any player at any position. The former fifth overall pick was in the top five at his position in stops (6), QB hurries (6), and sacks (2).
To put that in perspective, the only other player in the NFL that had a grade in double figures was Broncos linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
Most of Mack's grade came in week three against the Arizona Cardinals when he torched their talented offensive line featuring left tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Mike Iupati. In one half of football, Mack recorded two sacks (both from the right side), three tackles, 4 QB hurries, and one forced fumble.
Expectations for Mack were high in 2014, and they are sky high coming into this season. None more so than from his teammates and coaches.
He is a monster." - Raiders middle linebacker Curtis Lofton this offseason
"That guy is a freak man...it's like playing Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Demarcus Ware, all those guys." - Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during training camp.
His defensive coordinator knows about high expectations as a former NFL player.
"I think everyone had such high expectations for him, but I just want to caution that he is only in his second year," said Ken Norton Jr. "He's a guy that he has everything, now it's just a matter of doing it. Just lining up, playing hard, the mindset is where it needs to be, his effort level is where it needs to be. His work ethics are where it needs to be. So we're really excited to sit back and let him play. Just get him to do something he does best. He rushes the passer really well. He plays really hard. He's a mismatch on the field. He's a type of guy you just have to turn him lose, and we're turning him lose."
The difference the Raiders expect from Mack this season is him finishing his quarterback pressures with sacks. While he had 40 quarterback hurries in 2014, Mack only had four sacks.
Mack's low sack numbers can be attributed to his being the only elite defensive player on the Raiders defense last season. He was the focus of opposing teams' game plans and was double-teamed nearly every play. Yet, he still had his way with opposing offenses.
Nearly every one of the top linebackers and defensive ends have other elite players on their defense which prevents offenses from focusing solely on them
Justin Houston has Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson with the Chiefs. Von Miller plays across from Demarcus Ware with the Broncos. The Rams defensive line features the trio of Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Aaron Donald. Terrell Suggs had C.J. Mosley and Haloti Ngata to distract attention from him with the Ravens. Lavonte David with the Buccaneers plays right behind Gerald McCoy. Mario Williams plays next to Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo.
The only elite linebacker/defensive end that has primarily played without a lot of help has been J.J. Watt and he is widely viewed as the best defensive player in the NFL regardless of position.
What Mack accomplished last season was pretty incredible considering the best player he had taking attention from opposing offenses was Justin Tuck who is past his prime.
This season, Mack looks to have a better defensive line and linebacking corps that should help free him up for more one on one situations.
His prospects improve with the recent addition of former All Pro pass rusher, Aldon Smith and his 44 sacks in 50 games. Opposing offenses will have to game plan for Smith too which will take a lot of pressure off Mack and will prevent him from being double teamed. Mack and Smith have the potential to be one of the best pass rushing duos in the NFL.
"He's a type of guy you just have to turn loose, and we're turning him lose," Ken Norton Jr said of Mack. "He's around a good environment with good people. Everyone has high expectations for him...and we expect him to just really take off."
The first team who has to face a fired up Mack is the Cincinnati Bengals who come to Oakland for the season opener. That includes the man who must try and game plan against him -- former Raiders head coach, Hue Jackson.
"He's fast, he's sudden, he's strong, he's got spin moves, he's got karate moves. The guy is a rolling ball of butcher knives. He can play." - Bengals Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson.
"Mack is a heck of a football player and it'll be a heck of a challenge." - Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth on his upcoming match-up against Mack and the Raiders Sunday.
Now, after a stellar rookie season that generated all the talk, all the buzz, and all the accolades, along with sky high expectations, it's finally time to put it on the field in the regular season. That starts Sunday against the Bengals.
Editor's note: Levi Damien contributed to this article.