Khalil Mack is the most versatile athlete in this years NFL draft. For this reason Mack will likely be taken in the first ten spots in the upcoming draft. Mack's versatility also makes me wonder what the team who drafts Mack will have as his role on the field. Many people peg Mack as a can't miss SAM linebacker. What is a SAM linebacker? Good question.
A strong side linebacker, or Sam Linebacker, as the game has changed from just stopping the run to also react quickly to the play and also provide pass coverage backer in a 4-3 defense. Mack's primary role is to provide strong run support and fill his gap on the run, but he also is required to drop in short zones in both cover 2 and cover 3. With the NFL game moving away from an establish the run to open the passing game to pass first and catch the defense off balance with a run. At times Mack will have to play man-to-man coverage on either the tight end or the number two or three receiver. Depending on the tendencies of the teams you play, your Sam linebacker might be more of a pass coverage guy, or more of a traditional "linebacker" type. Does Mack have the versatility, speed, quick decision making, lay the big hit, and everything needed to play this position? Absolutely he does but it will be a huge transition from his previous role in Buffalo. Mack was able to float and roam based on the formation and was more of a pass rusher reeking havoc behind the line of scrimmage.
In the SAM position Mack is lining up off the line of scrimmage seven to eight yards back. Mack will have the responsibility to look in the backfield to recognize pass vs run. He must also key hard on the TE to see if he has engaged in blocking for a run. If a pass Mack will be responsible to cover the tight end if a TE is in the mix. If no tight end, the Sam linebacker will essentially split the space between the end man on the line of scrimmage and the inside slot receiver. This allows him to be in close proximity to stop the run, and in good position to drop in pass coverage if necessary.
What will Mack be asked of if the play call is a Run
If Mack reads run, Mack must fill the gap in the defense. Mack's first move is forward to either make the tackle or close the gap and force the RB to look for the open slots to gain yardage. If the play is run away from Mack, his primary responsibility is to take away the cut back ability from the RB.
What will Mack be asked if the play called is a Pass
As soon as Mack reads pass, Mack myst cover his assigned man whether a TE, slot receiver, or running back. Mainly the SAM linebacker will drop into zone coverage and use he athletic ability to make plays. Mack must read the QB to make up space created with multiple outlets in his assigned area an make a sudden break for the ball.
With the pass first or west coast offensive not the major scheme in the NFL, the SAM linebacker role has shifted from what the strong safeties role in the past. Can Mack be a difference maker as a SAM linebacker? Absolutely and this is the reason for the surge to the top of the draft. A player like Mack does not enter into the NFL every year. The only thing that I will miss is seeing Mack line up against an offensive tackle and get after the QB. Does the team the drafts Mack use him to rush the QB? With Mack's athleticism he could be either a pass rusher or linebacker. Mack in UB's defense played everywhere. I can't wait to see where he plays on Sunday's this fall.