ALAMEDA — Fifteen years of wasted or traded away first-round draft picks have laid the foundation for a dismal decade for the Oakland Raiders.
From busts such as JaMarcus Russell to reaches such as Darrius Heyward-Bey, mistakes on draft day led directly to losses on the field as the Raiders have gone 12 straight years without a winning record or playoff berth.
General manager Reggie McKenzie might finally have found a player to help end that slide this year in linebacker Khalil Mack. The fifth overall pick out of Buffalo has been an impact player right from the start.
He is dominating against the run, a relentless pass rusher and an eager learner who is part of the foundation for what the Raiders hope will eventually be a resurgence.
“He jumps out on film every week,” safety Charles Woodson said. “So to us it's no surprise what he's doing out there. We know the other team, whether it's the quarterback or whether it's the tackle or tight end trying to take him on, they're feeling him. And that's every week. That's every play, man. This guy's going to be special.”
Since drafting Woodson fourth overall in 1998, the Raiders made 15 first-round picks the following 15 years and dealt three more away in ill-fated trades for Randy Moss, Richard Seymour and Carson Palmer.
Only two of those 15 ever made a single Pro Bowl — cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and kicker Sebastian Janikowski — and many were colossal failures such as Russell.
Mack appears to be a full-fledged success.
“He's continuing to grow and he's continuing to improve. Each week he's gotten a little bit better,” interim coach Tony Sparano said. “He's getting better and better and that's all we can ask for our young players right now is to continue to improve.”
Mack's play has put him in contention to win the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Mack is one of the leading contenders for the honor, along with St. Louis' Aaron Donald and Baltimore's C.J. Mosley.
The Raiders haven't had a player win a major postseason award since quarterback Rich Gannon was MVP back in 2002.
“I can't listen to it,” he said. “I'll listen to it at the end of year, but not now. The grind is all I'm focusing on, and going out and getting better every week.”
He has done just that. Mack is the top-graded 4-3 outside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus, just edging out Denver star Von Miller.
While many outside linebackers make their names by sacking the quarterback, Mack has been at his best against the run where he fights off blocks to make plays in the backfield every week. Mack is second in the NFL to Houston's J.J. Watt with 11 1/2 tackles at or behind the line against the run, according to STATS.
Mack is no slouch rushing the passer despite seeing more than his share of double-teams. He is tied for sixth among all linebackers with 51 quarterback pressures and has four sacks on the season. Mack ranks third in quarterback pressures among linebackers over the past 11 weeks.
“It's been pretty cool to see the transition from the game moving fast to it starting to slow down, and I'm starting to key a lot of different things and read a lot of different things and see how people are scheming, and pretty much knowing how the game works at this level,” Mack said.
Mack's growing comfort level has led to more ways he can be used by defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. After starting the season mostly as a strongside linebacker, Mack now moves around the defense to get the best possible matchup and to confuse opposing quarterbacks.
Buffalo's Kyle Orton appeared flustered by the constant pressure Mack applied this past week from all different areas of the field.
“We've been able to move him more and more,” Tarver said. “But what's great about Khalil is he's a one-time correction young man. He can see it once he does it. He's very conscious of what he's doing, so when he sees it he remembers the play and you say, 'Hey, what did you feel here?' or, 'What did you do? Next time you feel that, do this.' He's got it.”