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Chicago Bears Saturday Spotlight: Khalil Mack

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at linebacker Khalil Mack

Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Name: Khalil Mack

Position: Linebacker

Nickname: Bane

Number: 52

Age: 29

Time with Bears: 2 seasons

The Past:

“Third and 17. MACK STRIPS IT. He is UNBELIEVABLE. Khalil Mack strips it down, Seattle recovers, but if there’s a quarterback with the ball, he’s going to find him this year.”

In the National Football League, when you practice and prep for an opponent to play on Sunday, teams often look at tendencies. 2nd and short, here’s what the other team like to run. Obvious passing down, here’s who they like to select as their first read. 3rd and short, they trust this guy to run into traffic and cross the sticks.

Khalil Mack is a gameplan all his own.

You see it, when quarterbacks make their pre-snap adjustments. Mike linebacker here. Confirm with your center. This pre-snap motion indicates man coverage likely. Wide receiver option, if the safety drops, go here.

Mack, right side, chip tight end, block with tackle and leave running back to protect.

The Oakland Raiders wanted to trade this guy?

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Back in 2007, a younger Mack was a star basketball player at Fort Pierce Westwood High School in Florida. He had dreams of obtaining a college scholarship to play basketball, but a torn patella tendon sidelined his plans. The next fall, he put his efforts behind being the best linebacker he could be for the football team, and rose the recruiting ranks to a 2-star recruit by 24/7 Sports by 2009. Modest, with promise if he developed. He received a scholarship offer from the University of Buffalo, to play for head coach Turner Gill, and Mack signed the papers to begin his NCAA journey.

Mack redshirted his first year, and Gill left to become the head coach at the University of Kansas. In the 2010 season Mack recorded 68 total tackles with 4.5 sacks for the Buffalo Bulls, then upping the sacks to 5.5 in his RS Sophomore year. He broke out his RS Junior and Senior years, earning the MAC conference Defensive Player of the Year award and consensus All-American in 2013 and earning high spots on mock draft boards. It was clear Mack would have a storied NFL career.

The Oakland Raiders, after going 4-12 the year previous, selected Khalil Mack with their 1st round pick, number 5 overall. Then-Raiders coach Dennis Allen described Mack as an “impact player” and “the total package” after the draft, and the young linebacker immediately slotted into a starting outside linebacker role for the Raiders. He recorded 75 total tackles his rookie season, including 4 sacks and a forced fumble, before establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers with 15 sacks the following year in 2015, behind only JJ Watt. He was named first-team All-Pro and started becoming a household name.

In 2016 Mack again was a force to be reckoned with in the pass rush, tying for 8th in the league with 11 sacks but specifically in an 8-game span logging 10 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, 5 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries. Mack was taking games over the way quarterbacks did on the other side of the ball. For his efforts in 2016, Mack was awarded the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, of course with another All-Pro nod, and he helped the Raiders to their first playoff birth in over a decade.

New York Giants v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

One year later, after a 6-10 season ending on a 4-game losing streak, the Raiders fired then-head coach Jack Del Rio and hired their former coach Jon Gruden to lead them into 2018. Mack, who was still playing under his rookie contract, demanded a new contract after his 3rd straight Pro Bowl nod, and held out the preseason in search of that payday, asking for a trade if no deal was done. Gruden and the Raiders, for their part, didn’t want to trade Mack but knew tough decisions would have to be made with star quarterback Derek Carr signing a then-largest contract in the NFL in average money per year the year before. They couldn’t afford to pay record-setting money twice.

So we’re in August of 2018, and the preseason is near completed with Mack still holding out. Gruden puts Mack on the trade block, and the Green Bay Packers call. They want to pair their 2-time MVP quarterback who shall remain nameless with a former defensive POTY, in hopes of bringing another Lombardi trophy home to it’s namesake. There’s another caller, though. The Chicago Bears are offering two 1st round draft picks, coming off 4 consecutive losing seasons with a new coach and a quarterback quickly entering the “bust” discussion. Surely they’ll yield better draft picks than Green Bay?

NFL insider Adam Schefter: “Raiders and Bears have an agreement in place to trade Khalil Mack to Chicago. Still working through it, but Raiders now planning to send Mack to Chicago.” The Bears have completed the trade for a future Hall of Famer, still in the prime of his career.

Week 1 against his would-be suiters in Wisconsin, Mack recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pick-6. The next week against the Seahawks, a strip sack of Russell Wilson, followed by 2 sacks and another forced fumble against Arizona in week 3 and a forced fumble against the Buccaneers in week 4. The man had one of the best Septembers in NFL history, without a training camp of preseason with the Bears, and against solid competition. Mack finished the 2018 season with 47 total tackles and 12.5 sacks, was named 1st-team All-Pro, contended for a second defensive POTY award and wrote his name into the Bears’ storied defensive history books. His jersey was everywhere (and still is).

In 2019, Mack led the charge for a defense trying to carry the team back to playoffs. Against Denver in week 2, he recorded a sack and a knocked-down pass against the Broncos in a thrilling down-to-the-wire game against pitting Chicago against former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, then the head coach in Denver. Two weeks later he terrorized prize pony quarterback Kirk Cousins for 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. In week 11 against the New York Giants, he stripped quarterback Daniel Jones to assist the Bears in holding off a comeback attempt in the 2nd half. Mack finished 2019 with 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and his 5th consecutive Pro Bowl nomination. The Bears struggled with injuries on defense, with Mack missing 2 games himself as the team limped to an 8-8 finish.

The Present:

Khalil Mack entered 2020 with much to prove. Although he had made the Pro Bowl twice for the Bears, his ability to elevate the team around him had seemingly gone down from where it was in 2018. Where before he could force a quarterback into throwing an interception by collapsing the edge, now he was drawing double teams to stifle his pass rush and the team around him wasn’t doing enough to disrupt the pocket. Ryan Pace shelled out huge money to sign Robert Quinn to rush the other side, hopeful that the pair of Mack and Quinn would terrorize quarterbacks and put Chicago in contention for the NFC North crown. The story of the Bears 2020 season has been dominated by their offensive struggles though, to the point where Mack has been a secondary caption to the headline of the Bears endless quarterback dilemma.

Despite the Bears struggles in the middle of this season, Mack has still been a force. Against Tampa Bay in week 5, he sacked Tom Brady twice and helped the Bears to their first win over the GOAT quarterback in 6 tries. In a tough overtime loss against the Saints, he recorded a sack and a forced fumble. Mack has 8 sacks and 3 forced fumble so far in 2020, and was nominated for his 6th career Pro Bowl as the NFL still recognizes him as one of the best in the business.

The future:

When the Bears traded for Mack in 2018, it involved an agreement to sign him to a then-highest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. 6 years, $141 million to keep him in Chicago through 2024. The Bears are saddled with Mack for a long time, and they’ve built a defense around him which can contend with any team in the NFL. While they are middle of the road in run defense, they boast one of the best secondaries in the NFL and a duo of Mack and Akiem Hicks with dangerous pocket disruption. If the Bears could add a quarterback who can keep the offense on the field, so Mack has fresh legs when he steps onto it, the Bears will be contending again for the NFC North championship and even further if that quarterback can take them there.

The Bears enter week 17 essentially in a playoff game against their arch-rival Packers. If the Bears lose, they could likely miss playoffs if the Cardinals can win against a Rams team starting a backup quarterback in place of Jared Goff. There are multiple playoff scenarios which would see the Bears playing football after this week, but the most important thing on everybody in Halas Hall’s mind is this: Win, and you’re in. To beat the great juggernaut that is the Green bay Packers, you have to put Aaron Rodgers on his back, run the ball down their throat, and win the turnover battle. Look for Mack do his part for 2 of those 3 things.

Week 17 prediction:

3 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 safety