Oakland Raiders: Five Burning 2015 Questions

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Dec 28, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) leaves the field against the Denver Broncos in the third quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 47-14. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

3. How Will Khalil Mack Be Used This Season?

Khalil Mack may be the best player the Raiders have going into the 2015 season. Last year’s 5th overall pick hit the NFL by storm last year, quickly becoming the number one pass rushing threat on the team as well as a top-notch run defender. With his exceptional athletic ability and versatility as well as football skills that improved from week to week, Mack developed into a full-time player who could play linebacker on early downs and rush end on passing downs, never needing to leave the field on defense.

But with Jason Tarver and his “mad scientist” ways behind him, what does it mean for the versatile and talented Mack? How will Ken Norton and Jack Del Rio’s defense incorporate his skill set into what they like to do? The answer is relatively easy to find:

The first thing you have to know is that, while Ken Norton Jr. will be the defensive coordinator, head coach Jack Del Rio, a veteran defensive coach, will undoubtedly devise the defensive scheme and be the ultimate authority on the team’s defensive philosophy. At least for this year, it will be HIS defense. So what does Jack Del Rio’s defense mean for Mack?

Mack has often been compared to Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller. The two play the same position, are roughly the same size, and had roughly the same measurables at the NFL Scouting Combine. Miller, who entered the league in 2011, had an excellent rookie year used primarily as a 3-4 outside rush linebacker on an already talented Raider defense coordinated by former Raider head coach Dennis Allen. His second year, Jack Del Rio took over as defensive coordinator and Miller’s productivity exploded: he amassed 18.5 sacks, 68 total tackles, and was named first team All-Pro.

Under Del Rio, Miller was used different ways on different downs. On first and second downs, he would line up as the “sam” linebacker in a 4-3 Under look, meaning he lined up close to the line of scrimmage in a two point stance, either over or slightly outside the tight end. On passing downs, he would line up as a LEO rush end, in a wide-9 or wide-7 alignment, with his hand in the ground. This is similar to how Mack was used by Jason Tarver last year, though Tarver often put Mack back off the line of scrimmage in a traditional linebacker role rather than having him play closer to the line of scrimmage.

Del Rio will likely employ Mack – who is stronger and probably a better run defender than Von Miller – as a fifth defensive lineman in most situations. He will play close to the line of scrimmage, but stand up where he can flow to the run and set the edge, pass rush, or float out to the flat in some situations where he can also be a menace in the passing lanes. That said, Del Rio knows he needs a pass rush, especially with his cornerback situation: Khalil Mack is going to rush the passer first, and do everything else second.

If Mack can be healthy in 2015, he could be poised for a breakout season. He’s working with two coached in Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. who know how to use “tweener” linebackers to generate pressure from multiple alignments, and who will need to do exactly that to be successful.  Mack is going to be their main weapon against opposing quarterbacks, and he could very well double and then some his sack total from 2014.