OXNARD, Calif. – The new face of the Oakland Raiders doesn’t want to think about something as heavy as carrying a franchise out of the doldrums.
Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack is just like any young player trying to figure things out in his first training camp, oblivious to the grass stuck to his face after the second of two tough practices against the Dallas Cowboys this week. Before he can be asked to put a franchise on his shoulders, he has a lot to learn first.
“I feel like my responsibility right now is to get better as a player," Mack said. "I'm not worried about being the face of anything. The only thing I can do is what I can control, and I'm taking it a day at a time, man."
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Then let’s start with the present. Oakland took Mack, a dynamic outside linebacker from Buffalo who some analysts believed was the best player in the draft, with the fifth overall pick. And judging from the two practices here, the Raiders will not ease him into anything.
Mack lined up all over, sometimes with his hand on the ground at either right or left end, and sometimes standing up as an outside linebacker. He’d rush the quarterback some plays, and drop into coverage on others. He even appeared on some special teams. He looked like he was still processing things instead of just flying around and making plays, especially in coverage. On one play he reacted too slowly in his zone and Tony Romo threw a pass right by him to Dez Bryant on an underneath route. That's to be expected for a rookie, and the size and athleticism are all as advertised, as he showed when he performed well in one-on-one pass-rush drills. From watching him in a couple practices against the Cowboys, there was no reason to think the Raiders made the wrong pick.
Oakland had to have been thrilled when the multi-talented Mack fell to them, and the Raiders are going to use him in every way possible from his first game on.
"It didn't surprise me, because I knew what type of player I was and I know I'm a hybrid-capable player," Mack said. "It's my responsibility to be able to go out there and play multiple positions."
Mack will be given the chance to impact games in many ways, and do the Raiders ever need someone who can do that.
Through some bad draft picks, the infinitely regrettable Carson Palmer trade and being unable to land any great, young free agent, the Raiders don’t have a lot of building blocks for the future. They signed a ton of free agents this offseason who will make the roster better now, but almost none of them will help in 2016 and beyond. They’re almost all near the end of their careers and signed to one- or two-year deals.
So whether he knows it yet, Mack is the cornerstone of the franchise’s future. At least that’s the hope.
“He’s a real man, he’s a football-first guy, he’s got a tremendous work ethic and he’s a team player,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said when Mack was drafted. “Those are all things that we look for in adding to our football team. This is not only a high quality football-character guy, but a high quality character guy off the field, too.”
Put it this way: If a television network is promoting a Raiders game, whose picture are they going to use on the commercial? Quarterback Matt Schaub was given up on by the Texans and traded to Oakland for a sixth-round pick this offseason. Defensive end Justin Tuck is well known, but he’s nearing his twilight years in football. Running back Darren McFadden never paid off as a top-five pick should. When the team went to sign autographs after Tuesday’s practice the player who drew one of the biggest crowds was kicker Sebastian Janikowski, which tells you all you need to know. Oakland turned the third pick of the 2013 draft into oft-injured cornerback D.J. Hayden and offensive lineman Menelik Watson after trading down, and neither is anyone’s idea of a superstar.
So it’s on Mack (and, perhaps if he develops over the course of the next couple years, quarterback and second-round pick Derek Carr) to finally give the Raiders some identity. Mack knew of the Raiders’ losing ways, with no playoff appearances since the end of the 2002 season, but he also knows of the history of the franchise and the fan base that has stayed rabidly loyal no matter how much the team has lost.
“I love the fact that I came into a beautiful situation,” Mack said. "This team is growing every day. This team has great history, great fans, the best fans in the world, and I'm glad to be part of it."
Mack said he wants to be part of the building process, though that will come in short steps. Before Mack can be that guy who the Raiders promote as their franchise player, there’s a lot he has to prove. He’s not quite interested in talking about the big picture and his role in the organization’s long-term rebuild, but he has a pretty good idea what he wants out of his rookie season.
"I want to make an impact in any way I can, whether it's on special teams, making third-down plays whether it's coming off the edge or dropping back in coverage," Mack said. "Then, too, my goal is to be defensive rookie of the year."
That would be a great start for Mack, and it would be even better for the Raiders, who need their rookie linebacker to be the star they desperately need.
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