The 2014 NFL draft is one that will forever define the Oakland Raiders of the 2010’s
The Raiders found their franchise quarterback in the second round, but it was their first-round pick, Khalil Mack, that would pay off the cleanest.
The only player in NFL history to be named First Team All-Pro at two different positions in the same season, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Mack is an absolute stud on a defense that leaves a lot to be desired. However, there is one troubling trend that persists as his career continues to take off.
Khalil Mack’s Slow Starts
Khalil Mack is the best defensive player in the NFL. Sure, the likes of J.J. Watt, Luke Kuechly, Von Miller, Eric Berry, and Harrison Smith are all in the conversation, but when it comes to the top spot, Mack’s name is written in stone. Why? There’s a very simple reason.
Mack is a versatile powerhouse that dominates against the run and the pass. His rare combination of size, skill, strength, and speed mean that he can line up anywhere in the front seven and force pressure, standing up or with a hand in the dirt. On a good defense, with a smart defensive coordinator, Mack has that mystical “30 sack season” potential.
The Man on Fire
But what makes Mack the NFL’s best defender is that he doesn’t have that kind of support. Since being drafted in 2014, the rest of the team has sacked the quarterback 72.5 times. Over that same span, Mack has 40.5 sacks by himself. He’s never had a good secondary, Ken Norton Jr. didn’t know how to design defenses, and until Bruce Irvin broke out three weeks ago, he’s never had a complimentary pass rusher.
Derek Carr might be the most valuable Raider because of the position he plays, but there’s no question that Mack is easily the most talented. However, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has maintained a very strange trend.
Second Half Stunner
For some odd reason, Mack gets off to a slow start. During the first eight games of his first four seasons, Mack has registered 13.5 sacks. That’s 13.5 sacks in 32 games per game. That’s not bad. That’s actually pretty good, however, in the second half of the year, he takes off. If you look at his numbers in the second half of each his first four seasons so far? He’s registered 27 sacks. That’s insane. 27 sacks in 30 games, and there are still two games left this season. That’s unreal.
So What Is It?
So why is that? Why does Mack start the season slow, only to turn on the jets in November and become the quarterback killer we all know and love? It’s hard to say. It’s not like he’s lazy or plays poorly. From Week 1, Mack forces pressures and blows up runs. For some reason, he just gets to the passer faster and more often as the season goes on. Here are a few theories.
Wear and Tear
When the season starts, most players are fresh and healthy. They’re in the best shape they’ll be in all year, and they have all the optimism in the world that this is the season they win the Super Bowl. Maybe the offensive linemen that Mack encounters are just fresh enough to keep him at bay. They can’t completely shut him down, but they can earn another valuable second for their quarterback.
And those same quarterbacks are fresh enough to run away from him. But as the season goes on, that changes. The players get beat up, they lose a few games, and the weather starts changing. Suddenly it’s cold, the playoffs aren’t a possibility anymore, and the genetic nightmare that is Mack, ruthlessly powers past a body that’s been taking a beating all year long. Maybe Mack just has the endurance to dominate when others don’t.
It’s completely possible that Mack’s teammates figure it out as the season goes on. Oakland’s defensive struggles over the last few years are well-known, but they’ve had their moments. Defensive coaches have tried to figure the defense out, and maybe, towards the middle of the year, they get it figured out enough to allow Mack to generate a little more pressure.
For instance, in 2017, Norton was fired and John Pagano stepped in as the defensive coordinator. Since then, the defense has been significantly better, forcing more turnovers and getting more pressure on the quarterback. This is a fun theory because it means Mack is really ever only a little bit of help away from being absolutely dominant.
It’s also entirely possible that it’s just dumb luck. For whatever reason, Mack just doesn’t get there, and it’s a coincidence that he finishes more plays in the second half of the season. Maybe he faces quarterbacks that get rid of the ball faster early in the season like Marcus Mariota or Drew Brees. There’s a chance that some of the teams they face early have committed to the run and he has fewer chances.
It could be anything. It could be any of these reasons, all of these reasons, or none of these reasons. The one thing we do is that Mack is an absolute beast, and while 2017 hasn’t worked out the way anyone wanted it to for the Silver and Black, Mack is still every bit the monster he was in 2015 and 2016, and the Raider Nation will tolerate slow starts as long as they keep leading to explosive finishes.