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Mack Vs. Barr: The Best OLB In The Draft

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.
Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images.

With the second pick in the 1981 draft, the New York Giants selected Lawrence Taylor, and defensive football was forever changed.

Fast-forward 33 years, the way NFL teams look at the outside linebacker position as defined by Taylor remains the same. Speed to rush the edge, power to destroy offensive tackles, the instincts and relentlessness to make every play are the same skills needed to be great.

Coming into the 2013 college football season, Anthony Barr of UCLA was being touted as a potential No. 1 overall selection for the 2014 draft. A breakout year would ensure all eyes would be looking to Westwood to see if Barr's continued development would propel him into the top-pick discussion. Barr had a good year but fell short of the dominance predicted for him.

A world away, Khalil Mack toyed with the idea of declaring for the 2013 draft but his desire to return to Buffalo in hopes of bringing the Bulls a second MAC title and complete his degree kept him from making the jump. The decision has led to his rise to a top-five selection -- and to some the top player in the draft.

These two outside linebacker prospects are not only the best at their position, they are two of the best defensive players available. We compare both players and determine who may be the best selection come the 2014 NFL Draft.

Anthony Barr, UCLA

Jim Mora’s best move in his first year at UCLA was moving Barr from running back to outside linebacker. It was a move that helped UCLA gain a berth in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship game as well as elevate Barr into elite status in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Barr measured out at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds at the Combine, where he also ran a solid 4.66 40 -- though at his recent Pro Day he was reportedly clocked at 4.45. Regardless of time, Barr has proven he is an athletic specimen on the field, racking up 23.5 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss in his two years on the edge.  

Barr is a long, explosive athlete with great first step ability. What makes Barr potentially deadly as a rusher is his closing speed once he clears a blocker and drives to the quarterback. Barr’s ability to run down backs from behind makes him a threat from the backside of plays. He showed he can hold the edge against a ground-and-pound attack when UCLA faced a tough Stanford squad. His ability to deliver a strong punch and gain extension helped set the edge against tight end and it also neutralized offensive tackles, keeping them at the line of scrimmage. Barr’s tremendous change of direction ability allows him to play the running back on read option plays and still redirect and run down the quarterback.

Barr is still a developing prospect. In pass coverage, he is not intuitive in feeling out route combinations. At times, he stares down the QB rather than work his eyes through a progression in coverage. Outside of beating a tackle with his speed and explosiveness, Barr lacks any go -o pass rush moves or counters that will help him break free. If Barr could develop a counter move off his speed rush, it would be another weapon that would help him immensely.

Barr has the freakish size, speed, weight ratio that enamors scouts and makes him a first-round talent. But he is still learning the nuances of the outside linebacker position.

Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Mack arrived on the UB campus in 2009 with little flare and is leaving as the best player in program history. Mack finished his career as the FBS' all-time leader in forced fumbles (16) and tied the FBS mark for career tackles for a loss with 75.

At 6-3, 251, Mack has a powerful frame that scouts desire in an OLB prospect. He ran a solid 4.66 at the Bombine and had one of the best vertical jumps of any player in Indianapolis with a leap of 40 inches. His explosive first step helped him become a disruptive force in the backfield. Mack plays with great bend and body control, allowing him the ability to stay balanced in the midst of chaos.

In the run game, Mack can overpower linemen with his leverage and punch, and he can disengage from blockers to make plays on the football. Mack has good length to keep offensive linemen at bay while maintaining leverage in his gap.

In pass coverage, Mack has a good understanding of route concepts and leveraging receiving threats in his zone. Pass coverage is not the strongest aspect of his game, but it is better than most.

As a pass rusher, Mack has developed an array of moves and has the ability to rush from anywhere on the field. Mack finishes plays with a “pop”. His bone-jarring hits were a factor in his record forced fumbles, and he possesses a knack at punching the ball loose, much like Peanut Tillman has for the Chicago Bears.

What makes Mack an elite player is his instincts and the football acumen he has developed. While his opponents are playing checkers, Mack is playing chess. Mack not only understands the scheme in which he plays but how to beat each individual blocker he faces on a given call. Much is his football knowledge can be attributed to Lou Tepper, Buffalo’s defensive coordinator the past two seasons and a guru of linebacker play. The naysayers will look to his competition in the MAC, but when he faced the best in FBS -- like Ohio State and Baylor this past season -- Mack elevated his play. Mack was the one player every team game planned for, and few if any, opponents were even able to slow him down.

Who is the better selection?

Athletically, each player has the explosiveness and power you need to perform at a high level in the NFL. Barr has a bit more length and may have a bit of a higher ceiling athletically, but it’s really a wash. Instinctually, Barr is where Mack was going into his 2012 season and will develop his football intelligence in time.

I think the biggest factor separating these two is relentlessness. Mack reminds me of LT; even in high school his desire and competitive energy was obvious. If a ball was thrown 30 yards downfield, Mack would find a way to get there to make a play. Barr plays hard and works hard, but he isn’t close to the level of relentlessness as Mack. Mack’s understanding of the game and ways in which the defensive schemes will be attacked allows for his higher level of proficiency. If you want a player that is plug and play ready, Mack is the best prospect, hands down. Should a team miss out on drafting Mack, Barr is a great consolation prize and may be as equal a player to Mack, in time.