A mere 18.6 miles. That’s the distance from the University of Buffalo to the Buffalo Bills’ New Era Field. So when I say Khalil Mack was in the Bills’ backyard, it’s the 100-percent truth.
And that’s why four years after he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, it seems inconceivable Mack isn’t the next great Buffalo Bills pass rusher.
I mean, come on. The writing was on the wall.
Mack played his college ball for the Buffalo Bulls. That’s literally one letter off from Buffalo Bills. It could have been akin to the then Los Angeles Raiders taking USC’s Marcus Allen. A once-in-a-generation type prospect in a team’s backyard. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Yes, Oakland Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie was sweating bullets when Buffalo traded up to the No. 4 overall pick. Instead of taking the hometown product, the Bills nabbed Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and McKenzie couldn’t get the call in fast enough. He landed Mack at the five spot.
“I talk to Sammy about that every once in awhile and tell him how he stole my city from me,”
Mack before the two teams met in 2016.
Hindsight is 20/20 and fate has a funny way of working out when you think about it. But one cannot deny this: The Raiders would be drastically different today if the Bills had pulled the trigger on Mack.
Watkins could have been the fifth-overall pick, although the Raiders were also reportedly enamored with wideout Mike Evans. And the ripple would have carried over in the 2015 draft. With Watkins or Evans in tow, the Raiders likely wouldn’t have a need at wide receiver, hence making Amari Cooper a luxury. The team likely would have addressed the lack of pass-rushing bite from the interior defensive line and kept the Raiders-USC pipeline flowing with the selection of Leonard Williams (who made it known he wanted to be a Raider).
Mack along with quarterback Derek Carr — taken in the second round of the 2014 draft — have become the faces of the franchise. Two young stalwart players McKenzie can hang his hat on as the foundation of the Raider Renaissance.
While Mack’s homecoming is all set for this coming Sunday when the Raiders (3-4 overall) visit the Bills (4-2), Watkins is no longer in Buffalo after a trade sent him to — of all places — California to become a Los Angeles Ram?
Watkins made an impact in Buffalo, nonetheless. In three seasons, Watkins hauled in 153 passes for 2,459 yards and 17 touchdowns as a Bill. He currently has 18 receptions for 264 yards and two scores. In that same time span, Mack amassed 225 tackles, 30 sacks and a pick six in his first three seasons as a Raider. Oh, and lest we forget to mention Mack was anointed the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year last season. He currently has 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks this year.
The East Bay’s own Lorenzo Alexander — who led the Bills with 12.5 sacks last season and currently has two — saw Mack up close during his one-year stint (2015) in Oakland. And to say Alexander was impressed is an understatement.
“He’s a monster,” Alexander said. “I think everybody knows that. His game speaks for itself. There are not too many guys that have his size, athleticism and passion and the work ethic for the game all within one person. That’s why he’s so dynamic. Obviously, if he continues to maintain his health, he’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
Mack made sure the Bills rued the day they didn’t draft him last season when Buffalo visited Oakland.
After watching Carr and the offense erase a 15-point advantage and take a 38-24 lead, the Bills were threatening with four minutes left in the fourth quarter and had 1st-and-10 on the Raiders’ 17-yard line. Momentum was clearly in the Bills corner, but Mack had other plans.
Mack feigned fatigue with a lazy rush before turning into a powerful surge and not only got to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but knocked the ball free before recovering it himself. Sack, forced fumble and recovery. The coveted trifecta for any pass-rusher.
Mack has surely fit the Bill in Oakland. He could have in Buffalo, too. Without question.