By Alan Robinson
INDIANAPOLIS—So who should be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft 2 1/2 months from now?
Jadeveon Clowney? Johnny Manziel? Even Blake Bortles?
How about … Khalil Mack?
Yes, a player from Buffalo — one who is being compared to another player in the same city, Bills defensive lineman Mario Williams.
And, yes, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said he’d take Mack over Clowney, the South Carolina defensive lineman that Mayock says has “superhuman abilities.”
Mack, who is 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds, had 16 forced fumbles, 75 tackles for a loss and 28 1/2 sacks at Buffalo. And if the notion of a linebacker from the Mid-American Conference being chosen No. 1 overall in the draft might seem unlikely, consider that the first overall pick in the 2013 draft also was from the MAC, Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who moved up various draft boards in the days leading up to the draft. Kansas City took him with the No. 1 pick.
Mayock recalls calling up a video of the early season Buffalo at Ohio State game and not knowing what to expect. What he saw was a linebacker who dominated the Buckeyes like no one he had seen before.
“He blew them up. He made plays all over the field, on the edge, dropping into coverage, explosion, hustle,” Mayock said of Mack. “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. From my perspective in today’s NFL, guys that have natural edge rush ability are like gold; you’ve got to get them when they are available.
“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.”
Mack, of course, is expected to be long gone by the time the Steelers make the No. 15 overall pick.
Mayock said Mack is a prototype outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense like the Steelers play, but could be a strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
“I think he could play ‑‑ with his skill set and his ability to drop, his ability to ‑‑ I think he could play SAM (linebacker) or WILL to be honest with you. He’s 6‑3, 248. You could line him up on a tight end and he’d be OK,” Mayock said. “I think the important thing is that if you are drafting him as a 4‑3 team you have to make sure that in nickel and sub situations, you’re freeing him up to go get the quarterback and in today’s NFL, because of the versatility in defenses, I think that’s fine.”
Mayock also called Mack “a difference maker.”
And, speaking of Mario Williams, Mayock sees more potential in the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Clowney — despite a senior season that perhaps wasn’t up to expectations — than he did in Williams, a former No. 1 pick of the Texans.
“I know that he’s got the physical makeup to be the best player in the draft. If you want to compare him to Mario Williams, I think he’s a better football player with more upside than when Mario came out of college and he was obviously the first pick,” Mayock said of Clowney.
“So from a physical skill set, this kid is as freaky as they come. He plays a position of critical importance in today’s NFL which is an ability to get the quarterback. He can play multiple places on the defense, so all those things check off.
“My biggest concern is just what’s his mental makeup and how important is it to him when he gets a big paycheck to become the best player in football, or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire.
“So I think that’s the most critical checking point here from an organization is finding out what the motivation, what kind of kid are they going to get. I know what the football player is when motivated. I just want to know what kind of kid I’m getting.”