ALAMEDA — Raiders coach Dennis Allen knows firsthand how much impact a rookie pass rusher can have on a defense.
Allen has set the bar high for fifth overall pick Khalil Mack, hoping he can do for the Raiders what Von Miller did in Denver three years ago when Allen was coordinator.
“The thing that really was attractive about Khalil Mack was the fact that he understands how to rush the passer and he understands how to rush the passer with power,” Allen said. “I see a lot of similarities between he and Von Miller.”
The Raiders can only hope Mack turns out to be as productive as Miller, who had 30 sacks and 54 quarterback hurries in his first two seasons.
Mack went from mostly an unknown linebacker toiling in the Mid-American Conference to a surefire top 10 pick with a stellar senior season in which he recorded 10½ sacks and put together a personal highlight reel in one game against Ohio State.
He had nine tackles, 2½ sacks and an interception return for a touchdown in a loss to the Buckeyes that showed he could dominate top-flight talent as well as he dominated his conference.
“The guy has the size, he has the length, he's got speed,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “He's a playmaker. We'll find a way to put him on the field and get some production out of him. That Ohio State game was just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Raiders targeted Mack early in the draft process and were ecstatic when he was still on the board at fifth overall, leading to no debate in the draft room about which player to select or whether to trade down.
Mack will fit in immediately as a starter at linebacker and offers flexibility as a pass rusher who is adept at blitzing as well as lining up as an end.
He will team with free-agent acquisitions Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith on an overhauled defensive front that the Raiders hope will help improve a defense that allowed the second-most points per game (28.3) in franchise history.
“He's going to obviously have a big role in what we're going to do and he'll be a guy that we're going to use to send after the quarterback in a variety of different ways,” Allen said.
Mack won the Jack Lambert Award and finished second to Alabama's C.J. Mosley in the Butkus Award voting — both honoring the nation's top linebackers. He set a conference record with 16 career forced fumbles. His 75 career tackles for a loss were the most at the NCAA level since 2000.
At 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds, Mack is touted to have the speed, strength and versatility to play any linebacker position. At the NFL combine in February, Mack topped linebacker prospects in four of six categories: the 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds), vertical jump (40 inches) and broad jump (128 inches).
Mack said he believed he was the best defensive player in the draft.
“I think that I am, but even then I'm at the point right now where I'm tired of talking and I want to go out and start proving a little bit of this stuff everybody's been talking about,” he said. “I can't wait. I cannot wait.”
McKenzie has been unable to draft a star in two years at the helm in Oakland and is under severe pressure to bring in impact players as part of a rebuilding effort after the team posted back-to-back four-win seasons in his first two years.
McKenzie spent much of the offseason upgrading the roster with veteran free agent signings and a trade for quarterback Matt Schaub. But with most of those additions at least 29 years old and likely on the downside of their careers, Mack is expected to be one of the major building blocks in ending a 10-year playoff drought.
Oakland also has its own picks high in rounds two, three and four and three seventh-round picks. The Raiders traded this year's fifth-round choice for quarterback Matt Flynn, who was released last season after being unable to beat Terrelle Pryor out for the starting job. The sixth-rounder went to Houston in March in the deal for Schaub.