Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack The Biggest Threat To Dethrone Strahan

Dec 6, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) reacts after the Raiders were called for a neutral zone infraction against the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 6, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) reacts after the Raiders were called for a neutral zone infraction against the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Raiders star pass rusher Khalil Mack is a monster who showed what a force of nature he can be and is well positioned to rewrite the record books.

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It seemed to take the Oakland Raiders a season to figure out how to use Khalil Mack. Of course, that first season was under the “tutelage” of Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver, so it’s not real difficult to figure out why they didn’t help him realize his potential.

But now, paired with defensive minded – and competent – coaches like Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr., Mack is showing just how special he can be – and what a nightmare he is going to be for opposing offenses.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap generated a few headlines this week by saying that he is gunning for Michael Strahan‘s sack record this season. With a career 13.5 sacks last season – fourth best in the league – you could say that Dunlap is entering his prime with some momentum.

But does he have enough momentum to overtake Strahan in the record books? Probably not.

In fact, most people would argue that it’s Houston Texans beast of a pass rusher J.J. Watt who has the best shot at dethroning Strahan. Watt has broken 20 sacks twice in his career (2012, 2014) and has collected 74.5 in just five seasons – compared to just 49 sacks over six seasons for Dunlap.

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Watt’s production is beastly and he’s been a nightmare for opposing offenses. But with 19 sacks over his two seasons in the league now, Mack has coaches in place who know how to use him and he is beginning to come into his own. And it could be Mack – not Watt, and certainly not Dunlap – who replaces Strahan at the top of the NFL record book.

People talk about Watt’s versatility and how it has helped him become so dominant. Mack has that same sort of versatility to his game in that, he can move around on defense and still be an impact player. That sort of impactful versatility helped enable Mack to become the first player in NFL history to be voted First Team All Pro at two different positions – defensive end and outside linebacker.

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Coming out of Buffalo, everybody knew Mack was a rare and special athlete. It was something of a surprise – and a very pleasant one at that – when he fell to the Raiders at number five overall in the 2014 Draft. Unfortunately for Mack, he was saddled with a coaching staff (Allen and Tarver) who didn’t know what to do with him or how to use him to the greatest effect.

It all resulted in Mack finishing his rookie campaign with just four sacks – and mere flashes of how great he was going to become.

In all fairness, when Del Rio and Norton took over, they too seemed to struggle with how best to use a beast like Mack in the team’s defense. It’s not entirely their fault, they were taking over a team with a bunch of disparate parts and were trying to figure out how to best use them all. But when they figured out how to use Mack to the best of his abilities, it was something to see.

Oakland Raiders
Dec 13, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos tackle Michael Schofield (79) is unable to pass block Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Raiders defeated Broncos 15-12. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

It wasn’t until around week eleven that the defense started to click and Mack really got rolling. After totaling just five sacks through the first ten weeks of the season, he went on to post 10 sacks over the next four weeks, bringing his season total to 15 – falling just one sack short of Derrick Burgess‘ franchise record 16 sacks, set back in 2005.

Part of the reason Mack was shut out the last two games – and arguably, the biggest reason he didn’t have more than 15 sacks last year – was the lack of help he got.

With Mario Edwards Jr. – who was really beginning to shine – out with a neck injury and Justin Tuck of course, done in by injury earlier in the season – the Raiders didn’t have another legitimate pass rushing threat to keep teams from keying on Mack and keeping him off the quarterback.

Lest you think that is merely an excuse and that maybe Mack had just maxed out at 15, consider the fact that Malcolm Smith was the team’s second leading pass rusher and he accumulated a less than scintillating four sacks on the year.

But what a difference a year makes, huh?

Determined to get Mack some help and beef up their pass rush, the Raiders went out and snagged Bruce Irvin. They drafted Shilique Calhoun and Jihad Ward. Edwards is expected to be ready to go full speed at some point during camp. And Aldon Smith is expected to return from his suspension at some point in early November.

No matter which way you slice it, the Raiders are going to have a multifaceted, ferocious — and more importantly, deep — group of pass rushers. And a group that should post a higher sack total in 2016 than they did last year (38).

Teams are going to have to pick their poison when it comes to blocking Oakland’s bevy of pass rushers. And of course, having that stable full of quarterback killing beasts is only going to benefit Mack. Teams aren’t going to be able to focus on him and him alone. If they do, they’re going to find somebody else putting a hurt on their quarterback.

Having a group of pass rushers like Oakland now has means that Mack very well may see far fewer double and triple teams, giving him a little more room to operate. He may actually find himself in some one-on-one matchups that he can use his speed and power to blow through or around.

Given the upgraded state of Oakland’s pass rushing unit, it’s easy to see why quarterback Derek Carr is so giddy and proclaimed that Mack is going to ring up 30 plus sacks this season.

Mack is a rare blend of speed and power. He’s freakishly athletic who can do jaw dropping, eye popping things on the field – and yet make it look almost effortless. He’s the kind of athlete who can make the outrageous look almost commonplace.

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Still, thirty sacks on the year may be a little bit too outrageous to consider. Even for Mack. However, the idea that he could lead the league in sacks is nowhere near outside the realm of possibility. In fact, it would be something of a shock if he didn’t contend for that title this season.

And of course, given his talent and the influx of help he received this offseason, if anybody has a shot to dethrone Michael Strahan at the top of the record book for number of single season sacks, it has got to be Mack – and he’s not even going to need a “gift sack” in the final game of the season from Brett Favre to get it done.