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Raiders’ Khalil Mack: ‘I can get a whole lot better’

The Defensive Player of the Year means what he says — a scary thought for quarterbacks

Khalil Mack spoke so matter-of-factly, you could have easily figured he was joking. But the Oakland Raiders superstar wasn’t laughing. And just to make sure there was no ambiguity, Mack repeated his comment, punctuating it with stone-faced, steely-eyed emphasis.

“I can get better,” Mack said. “I can get a whole lot better.”

NFL quarterbacks are likely as eager to read that sentence as they would be about a rules change reducing the offensive line from five positions to four. In fact, to some NFL observers, the thought of Mack being even more of a momentum-changing pass rusher is as unfathomable as the Raiders becoming a championship franchise again. However, look at how far they’ve already climbed during Mack’s brief time out front. So doubt him at your own risk.

What’s clear is that in today’s game, there’s no defensive player better than the Oakland end, who’s beginning his fourth season. In 2016, Mack played a key role in the Raiders ending their long playoff drought at 14 seasons. He earned a well-deserved reputation as a “closer,” delivering a spate of big plays in the second half of the season as Oakland emerged as one of the AFC’s best teams. Awards voters noticed: Mack was selected the Associated Press 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.

If not for the broken leg that star quarterback Derek Carr suffered late in the 2016 season, the Raiders may have made a deep postseason run. With Carr recovered and Mack second to none among edge rushers, the Raiders have the look of a Super Bowl contender.

Since reporting to camp in Napa, California, Mack has set the tone for a team that figures to be one of the league’s best. And be forewarned, Raiders rookies and newcomers: Mack has no interest in merely being good.

“The one thing about this game, this game I love, is that there’s always something you can get better at. It’s just a question of how bad you want it,” Mack said. “I look back at last year like, there’s a lot to improve. It’s about polishing up my game in every area. Man, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Based on the first three years of his career, it seems Mack has already put in a lot.

After a solid rookie season as an outside linebacker (he was particularly strong against the run), Mack, whom the Raiders selected fifth overall in the 2014 draft, was switched to defensive end. Coach Jack Del Rio made the move shortly after his hiring in January 2015. His thinking? That Mack, as a hand-down right end who rarely dropped into coverage, could become an elite pass rusher. Del Rio nailed that one.

Last season, Mack finished with 11 sacks. He was one of only four players in the league with at least 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, and he also returned an interception for a touchdown. During Oakland’s six-game winning streak from Week 7 through Week 12, Mack sure looked like the league’s top defensive player, recording eight sacks, four forced fumbles and the pick-six. The Raiders finished 12-4, their best record since the 2000 season.

Mack, though, prefers to focus on the team’s first two games, in which he had no sacks. Although frustrated, he trusted his process. He remained on the grind from the film room to the weight room, maintaining his belief that the overall results would be good. They were better than good — they were lit.

“More than anything, it’s about getting prepared each week,” said Mack, who’s attempting to become the first Raiders player with at least 10 sacks in three consecutive seasons since Anthony Smith accomplished the feat from 1991-93.

Lamar Miller #26 of the Houston Texans is tackled by Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders in their AFC Wild Card game at NRG Stadium on January 7, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

“Kind of getting into ‘The Zone,’ that’s really about preparation. You’ve got to know where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. That starts early [in the week]. You can’t fake that, man. You either did your homework or you didn’t. Knowing the things you’re going to see, all season long, helps tremendously.”

His commitment to detail was evident in his breakout 2015 season. He sought tips from coaches daily and applied them.

Mack finished second in the league with 15 sacks (the past two seasons, Mack has a league-high 26 sacks). He became the first player named an Associated Press first-team All-Pro at two positions, defensive end and outside linebacker, in the same season. At only 26, Mack is already a two-time first-team All-Pro and a Defensive Player of the Year award winner.

Mack, not surprisingly, has been compared favorably with the league’s best pass rushers. One former player took it even further.

London Fletcher, who played linebacker for 16 seasons in the NFL, said Mack reminded him of New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player in NFL history. Yep, Fletcher went there.

“You can compare him to L.T.,” Fletcher said before the 2016 season. “You look at the film, there are similarities. So many similarities.”

Although Mack appreciates the high praise, he won’t go there. At least not quite yet.

“Man, it’s like this: I want to be one of the best who ever played,” Mack said. “That’s one of my goals. That’s not something you get after [three seasons].

“That’s something you have to work for your whole career. That’s what I work toward every day of my life.”

Carr works just as hard. Drafted in the same class, Mack and Carr quickly grew close. Together, they’ve formed the foundation of the renaissance that long-suffering Raiders fans had hoped would occur.

That’s why when Carr was lost for the remainder of the season in a Week 16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, “it was devastating for me,” Mack said. “Not only the football aspect of it, but Derek is my brother. My brother went down. It was hard for me. Looking back, I didn’t deal with it [well].

“And then from a football aspect, we knew what we lost. To reach that point and have a chance to get one of those things [a Super Bowl championship] you want so badly, and then something like that happens, you almost can’t believe it. And with him not being able to be on the field with us after getting to this point it was … just incredibly hard, man.”

No matter how the Raiders fare this season, their fans will soon endure more suffering.

In March, the NFL approved the franchise’s move to Las Vegas. The team could remain in Oakland through the 2019 season. But as soon as their new state-of-the-art stadium is ready, the Raiders, who played 13 seasons in Los Angeles before returning to Oakland for the 1995 season, will put Oakland in their rearview mirror.

Raiders players appreciate their fans and acknowledge that the situation is difficult, “but it’s also one of those things we can’t really focus on too much,” Mack said. “Just knowing how this game is, the business aspect of it, there’s only so much we can do as players.

“Look around our locker room now. By the time we move to Vegas, a lot of guys here won’t even be with the team. That’s just because of how the game is. I may not be here. So what can you do? Do your job and focus on being the best you can be each day.”

That’s Mack’s plan. And if his teammates are wise, they won’t make him repeat it.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.