A look back at the 2017 season by Oakland Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack, who enjoyed another standout year.
When you’re the first player in history to make the All-Pro team at two positions (in only your second season) and follow that up by winning the Defensive Player of the Year in your third, expectations can get a little high. Insanely high. That’s why when you’re Khalil Mack, you can have a career high in tackles (78), rack up double-digit sacks (10 ½), 22 QB hits and 15 tackles for loss, and some consider it to be a down year.
That’s why the All-Pro team snubs you for Cameron Jordan — who had more sacks — despite being by far a better all-around edge defender. But the standards he set in 2016 were too much even for him. Mack had a pick-six, five forced fumbles and three strip sacks in 2016 — many at perfect times to cement the game for the Raiders. This led to his DPOY award and a new standard for the already stellar defender.
Though it’s true Mack didn’t have as many high-impact plays (only one forced fumble) in 2017, he was again stellar at the point of attack in setting the edge. Per Pro Football Focus, he was easily the Raiders best player on either side of the ball:
— PFF OAK Raiders (@PFF_Oakland) January 17, 2018
But you don’t need statistical analysis to know Mack is the Raiders best player — you just need to watch him play:
Unbelievable play by Khalil Mack. Game changing play. pic.twitter.com/TK5BV3SMzB
— Evan Groat (@Egroat5) December 5, 2017
What sets Mack apart from other edge defenders is his ability to effectively rush the passer (22 QB hits in 2017 as well) while consistently being the game’s best run defender on the edge:
— PFF OAK Raiders (@PFF_Oakland) January 8, 2018
Mack’s 78 total tackles — an insane 61 of them solo — are easily the highest total amongst the top 20 in sacks. The two next closest are Joey Bosa (70 tackles) and Calais Campbell (68 tackles).
Mack has cemented himself as the best dual-threat edge defender in the game. He is at or near the top of the edge defender leaderboard in every category every season. His ability to play the run is second to none, which doesn’t deter him from ranking in the top ten in QB hits and sacks every season.
Mack is relentless, and he rarely if ever leaves the field. Of 1,039 defensive snaps last season, Mack was on the field for an extraordinary 930 (89.5%). This is despite routinely facing double and triple teams, getting held without quarter and playing full-stop to every whistle. Imagine if Mack got all the calls he should draw:
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) October 9, 2017
NFL referees just cannot accept that some players are good enough to win nearly every snap. But Mack is that good, and he proves it routinely each week, each year.
Of course, when you have that drive and motor combined with this ridiculous strength…
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) October 20, 2017
You’re going to dominate some opponents. Eric Fisher may ask for a trade out of the AFC West after Mack trashes him yet again in 2018.
Like the rest of the Raiders defense, Mack flourished under John Pagano after Ken Norton Jr. was fired. The Oakland defense struggled mightily as a unit in their first nine games under Norton, allowing crazy completion percentages and generating little to no pressure on the QB. The Raiders had zero interceptions through nine games, a dubious NFL record. So Norton is gone. Good luck, Seattle.
Mack had 5.5 sacks in nine games under Norton, including one in Norton’s last game against the Patriots. With help from Bruce Irvin — unpacked from the bubble wrap Norton had him in — over the next four games Mack had a sack in each (five games in a row total) and had two against the Cowboys.
In six games under Pagano, Mack had five sacks. He also forced his only turnover under Pagano, and had two of his three passes defensed. The Raiders defense as a whole drastically turned up the heat with Pagano at the helm.
While Mack’s impact plays were down in 2017 it’s safe and fair to speculate had Pagano been running the defense — or Norton used Irvin better earlier — Mack may have made more big plays.
A major step forward for Mack in 2017, and one that is very much overlooked, is his maturity as a locker-room presence and leader. This is impressive, because though Mack and Derek Carr have embraced their roles as faces of the franchise and the future of the Raiders, it comes much more naturally for the vocal Carr than it does for the naturally quiet Mack.
Mack isn’t one for trash talk or arrogance and rarely gives the media any more than he’s contractually obligated to give. A modest guy by nature, humble and deferential — the media, hype, and all that surrounds it just isn’t his style.
Preferring to lead by hard work and example Mack shied away from a more vocal role earlier in his career. As his star grew and teammates started looking to him, he began increasing his hands-on leadership after first Justin Tuck and then Charles Woodson left.
Bolstered by his DPOY award in 2016, Mack stated that he’d be more vocal and demanding in 2017. He made good on this despite no real overt change with the media. His work is behind the scenes with teammates — where he prefers.
His impact on and off the field in 2017 was prominent. During the season Pagano praised Mack for his leadership. He confirmed that though Mack doesn’t talk much to the press, he is a vocal coach on the field.
“I see great leadership. I don’t see as much as a quiet leader as probably he says, he’s vocal . . . And he leads like that in the meeting room. He’s on the field, he’s always working with those guys. Being able to truly coach those guys and have a great understanding of what we’re doing, he’s vocal,” Pagano said in December 2017.
Pagano further confirmed this leadership role in talking with the Mercury News in December in lead-up to the Eagles game. Gruden values leadership and accountability. With him coming in, Mack must continue to grow in this realm to reach his full potential.
New Raiders DC Paul Guenther had Carlos Dunlap in Cincinnati. Though different in style from Mack, Dunlap possesses the same ability to change the game and draw multiple blockers. Only he’s not as good as Mack. Guenther will have fun deploying Mack while generating his trademark A-gap pressure. This may mean Mack has more room to roam on the outside. Scary thought.
Mack is entering his fifth year, and will be playing in the last year of his rookie deal. The Raiders wisely optioned his fifth year, and Mack will make a cool $13.85M this season, per Spotrac.
The Raiders have certainly got their money’s worth out of the #5 pick in the 2014 draft since day one. Despite the team’s disappointing finish in 2017, Mack showed again he is a premiere edge defender. His run-stopping skills are truly special, and the Raiders continue to be lucky to have him.