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NFL Saturday Combine Musings: Mack could be pass-rush star

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INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the players in this year's NFL Draft I wasn't sure about until I studied him closer was Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

Before doing my top 32 this week, I watched some of this tape and came away so impressed that I put him at No. 3 on my list.

That seemed high, but after talking to scouts, coaches and personnel people here, I am convinced he is a top-5 pick -- and could go higher.

One coach said Mack reminded him of former New Orleans Saints star linebacker Rickey Jackson. Another GM said he was a bigger James Harrison.

They all say the same thing too: Watch the Ohio State tape.

I did, and he was dominant.

But there were games when he was not. One was the bowl game against San Diego State, a game he admitted to me that wasn't that good for him.

"There was some scheme stuff there," he said.

Scouts say it was easy for San Diego State to stay away from Mack in that game since he was clearly the top player on the field. They ran away from him, they said.

He faced Ohio State in his first game last season, and the Buckeyes might have been caught off guard by not knowing what he could do. Mack was single-blocked a lot in that game and he was all over the field, even returning a pick for a touchdown.

"It helped me a lot," Mack said of that game. "I got a lot of single blocks and it just so happened I played off of a cut-block and got an interception. So, there were a lot of things that played into my favor in that game."

Mack was given No. 46 at Buffalo as a freshman and stayed with the number throughout his career for a reason.

"The NCAA video game -- the first one that came out -- I was only rated a 46 overall with a 37 rating for speed, and it was a slap in the face, man." Mack said. "I knew deep down in my heart I was better than a 46.

"And, it just so happened, I was already No. 46 and I kept the number."

His rating last year was 80-something, he said.

That's not a shock. At 6-2½, 251 pounds, he has great size to be an impact edge rusher. But the thing scouts love is his power, which is why he is soaring up boards and lists.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said he would take Mack with the first pick. I would not, but he's not far off.

"Mike Mayock -- I love him," Mack said. "But, even then I just want to keep proving myself. I want to be the best. My dad always taught me to be the best at anything and everything that you do. And, I strive to be the best at anything I do, whether it was raking the leaves growing up, or whether it was playing tic-tac-toe with my brothers. We did stupid things but we wanted to be the best at it, and that's the reason I am so competitive."

It shows and Mack could be the next great 3-4 edge rusher in a league where that brings great value.

I talked to a handful of personnel men and coaches this week who wonder if Missouri defensive end/linebacker Michael Sam will even be drafted. "He's a special-teams guy," one GM said. Sam, who announced two weeks ago that he was gay, was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season. But he struggled in a big way at the Senior Bowl and had trouble adjusting to being an outside linebacker after playing defensive end in college. The initial talk after Sam announced he was gay was that he could be go as high as the third round. But I didn't talk to one league source who said he would go that high. "I see the sixth as more likely," the GM said. Sam met the media here at the combine Saturday and handled himself well. "I wish you guys would just say, 'Michael Sam, how's football going? How's training going?'" he said. "I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. And I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player." That's just it: Michael Sam the football player might not be as good as some think.

While Sam was up on one podium getting all the attention, Florida State defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, who will be a first-round pick, was on the other side of the room getting very little. Jernigan measured in at 6-2, 299 pounds and came across as a kid who believes in himself. Jernigan was asked about his reportedly playing with the flu in the National Championship Game against Auburn. "I had a slight fever," Jernigan said. But he still played almost the entire game. Scouts like that.

One of the more intriguing prospects in this year's draft is Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley. He had the ability to be a top-10 pick, but he tore his ACL last season. Easley said he expects to work out at his pro day in April. This is the second ACL tear for Easley, who tore it on the same knee in 2011. "I tore my ACL in 2011, [and] I got faster in 2013," Easley said. "So when I get back from this ACL, it's going to make me nothing but faster."

Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat is the son of former NFL defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, who played primarily with the Cowboys. Jackson said his father helped him some in his development. "He was able to teach me a lot of stuff," Jeffcoat said. "People think he was teaching me stuff when I was young, but really, he didn't want to teach me too much because he wanted everything I do to be natural." Jeffcoat is also being considered as an outside rush linebacker for 3-4 teams.

The workout by Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson Saturday was what many scouts expected. The kid has special athletic ability. "First tackle off the board," one scout said. Robinson, the scout said, does need to work on his technique.

The impressive workout Saturday by Tennessee State tight end A.C. Leonard might have surprised some, but scouts were well aware of his ability. Leonard went to Florida, got in some trouble, and mutually decided with coach Will Muschamp to leave school. He went to Tennessee State, played well, and then ran a 4.4 40 here to open even more eyes. On a day when most of the tight ends had issues, he shined.

If the tape and investigation of a casino incident shows Ravens running back Ray Rice actually hit his fianceé, the team will be facing a huge decision. How can they keep him on the roster if that's the case? General manager Ozzie Newsome said this Saturday about the situation: "It doesn't look good."

The Matt Cassel to Houston talk is gaining steam. Is that anything to get excited about?

 
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