Is Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack Best Suited For 3-4 or 4-3 at NFL Level?

By Rick Stavig
Khalil Mack
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bulls have never been known as a pro-factory. In fact, the highest-drafted player they’ve ever had was, wait, can anyone actually guess it? Even the most ardent Bulls fans? No? Didn’t think so. The highest-drafted player they ever had was tackle Gerry Philbin, drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions in 1964. Well, that will all change soon, because Bulls outside linebacker Khalil Mack will be selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

It’s not much of a question of if Mack will be selected in the first round. That’s a given. The biggest question, at least among many draft analysts, is what defense he’s best suited for. Some think he’s best suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Others think he’s best as an outside linebacker in a 4-3. For Buffalo, he has plenty of experience playing in both fronts. So which one is he best suited for in the NFL?

First off, we should just acknowledge he can play either defense. He’s that good. But that’s not to say he couldn’t be a better fit in one defense or another. I think he could be a very good 3-4 OLB, but I think he could be one of the game’s best 4-3 OLBs.

In terms of a 3-4 defense, the main reason people consider him a good fit in this scheme is his pass-rush ability. And make no mistake, this kid has chops getting after the QB, evidenced by his 25 career sacks. The biggest concern in this instance will be his size (6-foot-2, 245 pounds). There will be some that worry about his ability to go against enormous NFL tackles play after play, and his ability to hold up against the run. And this is a legitimate concern. There’s a reason most 3-4 OLB’s are usually about 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, because they’re essentially taking the role that a defensive end would have playing in an even front.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not too small to play outside in that defense, and I still think he could play that role very well. I just don’t think it’s the role best suited for him.

In a 4-3, he’s not going to be going against a huge tackle every play. He’ll face them here and there, especially when he’s rushing the passer, but for the most part he’d be going against tight ends, running backs and maybe a few slot receivers.

Another thing to consider is his speed. He’s got the kind of speed to play sideline-to-sideline. While that speed will oft times be used for simply getting up field to get after the passer, in a 4-3, he’d also be using that speed in a greater capacity across the field. He’ll offer more versatility to a defensive coordinator in this regard, and would be able to capitalize on his coverage skills.

At this point in his development, he most closely resembles Von Miller, who was drafted second overall in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, has the same exact size as Mack, only he played defensive end in college, not outside linebacker. Miller was debated back and forth whether he was best fit in a 4-3 or 3-4, and ultimately went to a 4-3 team to play on the strong side. Since then, he’s absolutely exploded with 31 sacks in 33 NFL games.

Mack is a ferocious pass rusher, but he’s not quite on the same level as Miller. Mack is, however, better in coverage than Miller was at this point. I think Mack could do very well in a 3-4, and I think no matter what defense he plays in he’s going to rack up highlights. But ultimately, I think playing in a role similarly to Miller’s in a 4-3 on the strong side, with a little more coverage responsibility, would bring out the most in this talented young prospect.

Rick Stavig is an NFL Draft Columnist for Follow him on Twitter @rickstavig or add him to your network on google.


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