What Are The Chargers Really Getting In Khalil Mack?
As you well know by now, we are in the dog days of the NFL offseason. Thankfully, we are under 30 days until training camp hits, which will be glorious. It’s around this time of the year, however, that I usually like to head over to NFL Game Pass and revisit some coaches film from relevant games from the previous season. It was only right that I kicked this part of the offseason off by studying Khalil Mack after the Chargers started their offseason by acquiring Brandon Staley’s former star player in Chicago. I wanted to get down to the nitty and gritty of what the Chargers will be getting in the former Defensive Player of the Year.
First, let’s start with some question marks because I think there are some worth discussing. There is this notion on social media that Mack is completely washed up, this is particularly relevant in those voices among Raiders and Bears fans. I strongly disagree with him being washed up, but Mack is clearly not the same kind of dominant force that he once was when he was walking his way to 70+ pressures and 11+ sacks every year and I think you can see that mostly in the little bits of his game, particularly when it comes to pass rush win rate where he went from 19.6 in 2020 to 17.4 in 2021.
Now, of course, some of that could be due to the foot injury that plagued and ultimately ended his 2021 season. If that is the case, that obviously benefits the Chargers that much more after not trading a ton of resources to acquire his services, if he can prove to be healthy in 2022. However, he is over 30 years of age, and I would understand it if Chargers fans in particular were skeptical of the impact a 30+-year-old player coming off his first major injury will make in the powder blues.
I think it’s important to set realistic expectations by acknowledging that because of his injury and slight decline we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons that is possible this doesn’t turn into a home run trade.
It is also important to point out that this was really the only time Mack has been seriously hurt in his career. This isn’t a Bryan Bulaga situation where the Chargers are inheriting a player with a very well-documented laundry list of injury history.
For the most part, Mack has been incredibly durable, playing in at least 14 games in every season of his career except for 2021. The Chargers were quietly one of the healthiest teams in the league last season, something that was clearly a very large point of emphasis for Staley and his staff. Theoretically, the new and improved training staff + Staley’s knowledge of the player should help them get Mack to playing in 14+ games again over the next few seasons of his career.
How Effective Is Khalil Mack?
That being said, Mack is still a highly effective player in this league and absolutely one of the top 10-12 pass rushers around for my money. While he’s not able to be that same dominant force on a down-to-down basis, you still see several glimpses on tape of him demonstrating that sheer power that has made him such a feared player around the league.
In week three against the Browns, there was an instance where he was being combo blocked by their two tight ends and after the second one moved off the block to climb to the next level, Mack essentially bench pressed the first one and made a tackle for loss on Kareem Hunt.
A few weeks later against the Raiders, I watched him bull rush their right tackle to a point where he essentially dropped him right into Derek Carr’s lap.
Against the Packers, he took on a pulling blocker during a trap play and he legitimately stone walled the guard on the spot, which allowed his inside linebacker to have the perfect angle on a tackle for loss.
While the dominance isn’t there all the time, the motor and effort for Mack have never stopped and I think that is my favorite part about studying his 2021 performance. I believe one of the things the Chargers were really missing up front after Melvin Ingram left, was a true tone-setter. Someone that is going pedal to the metal on every snap of each week, whether it be in a game or in practice, and bring the rest of the squad with him. That’s no shade to Joey Bosa, who is an elite player in his own right, but he’s just not a tone-setting leader in the same way Mack or Ingram are. Getting Mack in that room allows Bosa to do what he does best, while also giving a legitimate running mate to compete with in training camp and throughout the season.
When your dominance leaves you as a player, you have to overcompensate in other ways. Evolve or die, as some like to say. Mack is able to do that because he does all the little things at a very high level. He will stick his nose into scrum plays, set the edge with his sheer strength, take on pulling blockers head-on, and scream across their faces on a slant as his teammate loops behind him on a stunt to make a play on the ball.
Having one of your best players do all of those things does wonders for your defense’s other players who have to watch that kind of player work every single day in practice. Brandon Staley spoke about this when told the story of how Mack would sprint out to drills every single practice in Chicago and eventually the rest of his teammates followed suit. It set the tone for the team to compete at an elite level in everything that they did. That mentality will set the tone for the defensive line and I’m sure he and Derwin James will have some legendary races in Costa Mesa this fall.
How Does Khalil Mack Fit?
From a schematic standpoint the Chargers adding Mack into the fold should take a ton of pressure off of Bosa who faced double and triple teams far too often, 23% of his snaps according to ESPN’s analytics. His presence should allow Staley to throw a lot of stunts at opposing teams to cause havoc, and by extension free up a lot of one on one opportunities for everyone on the defensive line. I certainly don’t want to be the offensive line coach that has to game plan pass-blocking schemes against Bosa and Mack (along with Kyle Van Noy) on a weekly basis.
Another very interesting layer here is that the Bears would actually line Mack up as an off-the-ball linebacker from time to time and have him blitz from there. Mack is good enough in coverage to survive, at least in zone coverage in the flats and over the middle. So if Staley wanted to get really crazy he could line up a four-man front with Bosa and Morgan Fox on the edges while Mack and Van Noy line up at linebacker to run some potentially extraterrestrial blitz packages (or designer looks as Staley likes to call them). The possibilities there are endless because of the versatility of the unit.
Ultimately, the Chargers likely won’t get a defensive player of the year season out of Mack but they should get a very productive one. I see no reason on film to believe he couldn’t at the very least replicate what he put on the field in 2020 when he totaled 59 pressures, 10 sacks, and was PFF’s highest-graded run defender. (For reference’s sake, Uchenna Nwosu totaled 40 pressures and 5 sacks last season as the Robin to Bosa’s Batman.) That kind of production would put him in the Preston Smith, Brian Burns, Yannick Ngakoue, and Emmanuel Ogbah range. Add that in with his ability against the run, the schematic freedom, and the leadership he will bring to the table, and you’re talking about a tremendously valuable season for the Chargers. That would probably put him outside the top 10 within his position ranking, but still very valuable.