Better in 2016: Khalil Mack or Von Miller?
The AFC West boasts three of the league’s most fearsome edge defenders, and may end up with a complete set if San Diego’s Joey Bosa becomes the player he suggested he could be over his last two years of college.
The proven NFL commodities, however, are Khalil Mack in Oakland, Von Miller in Denver, and Justin Houston in Kansas City.
I was initially tasked with writing this article on whether Mack or Miller would have the better season in 2016; however, the more I thought about it, the more Houston deserves to be in the discussion, too.
Houston has a 20+ sack season to his name (2014), and that year stacks up well against the best of Miller’s and Mack’s, even if his overall PFF grade didn’t quite match the gaudy sack totals.
What is perhaps most interesting about Houston is that his PFF grade improved each season of his career until 2015—a year curtailed by injury—but on a per-snap basis last season, he was actually better again. That is a remarkable and unusual developmental curve from a player that has already shown himself to be excellent, but may not be done getting better. That, above all else, is what puts him into the conversation with Mack and Miller. The other two have probably been better thus far on an every-down basis, even without the 20-sack seasons, but Houston has yet to stop getting better, and even a small improvement in his current level would put him right in their ballpark.
Sadly, for Houston, the injury that ended his season was a significant one. He tore both his ACL and LCL, will open camp on the active/PUP list, and may not be ready for Week 1 of the 2016 season. Even if he is, it seems a stretch to expect him to be immediately back to his best—or even better—coming off such a major injury. The year for Houston to show he can match or exceed Mack and Miller may be 2017, not 2016.
So, instead, let’s focus on the showdown between the other two players.
Khalil Mack had a significantly higher grade than Miller over the 2015 regular season (as noted in the above graphic). He had more sacks, though the pair actually tied each other in total pressures, with 82. Not all pressures (or sacks) are created equal, however—some can be clean-up plays requiring little positive play from the rusher, while some can be game-changing dominant plays that beat multiple blocks and apply heat immediately. As a result, Mack’s pass-rushing grade was higher than Miller’s on the same number of pressures. His run-defense grade was also far better, and this was reflected well by the stats. Mack notched 54 defensive stops over the regular season, the highest among edge defenders, and double the 27 Miller managed.
Miller, though, ended the year with a playoff run that showed what he is capable of at his best—being the game’s most dominant edge rusher. If you include a must-win game against the Chargers in Week 17 (playoff seeding was on the line for Denver), Miller averaged 7.5 pressures per game over the last four he played, and was probably the single-biggest impact player in both the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. Denver likely doesn’t have their Super Bowl rings without Miller going on that run.
As with all pass-rushers, there is an element of who they were going up against, but in this case, I think that argument levels itself out between Mack and Miller.
2016 will be heading into the sixth season of Miller’s career, and we have a pretty good idea of exactly who he is as a player at this point. He ended the 2015 season showing the kind of impact he can have, but he hasn’t really been able to have the J.J. Watt-type of consistency of bringing that impact each and every week of the season. If you can accept the notion that he isn’t quite Watt, he will be consistently about as good as it gets outside of that every year.
Mack, on the other hand, will be entering his third year in the league, and there is a big question mark attached to just where he can go given the improvement he made from years one to two, as well as how good both those years have been.
After two very comparable seasons, Miller was suspended for six games in his third year and couldn’t quite match the performance in his fourth, while Houston continued to improve, but he hadn’t hit the highs Mack already has. J.J. Watt hit his peak in year two and matched it in his third season, but we really don’t know what Mack’s 2016 season will hold.
Typically, edge rushers improve from years two to three, but none of these players are typical pass-rushers. Mack has already eclipsed every pass-rusher we have seen over the past decade or so other than Miller, so expecting him to share the same development curve as everybody else doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Both Von Miller and Khalil Mack are devastating edge defenders and among the best players in the game right now. Both finished inside the top 10 of the 101 best players in football, and there is no tackle in the game that is happy to face either one, but the bottom line is that Mack may be the safer bet heading into 2016.
Mack has proven to be a stronger run-defender than Miller, which has insulated him from fluctuations a little more. If a team really wants to neutralize a pass-rusher, they can do it schematically by getting the ball out quickly, chipping with backs and tight ends, and even straight double-teaming them. However, that neutralization is tougher to do in the run game, because it’s all about numbers at the point of attack, and any extra resources you dedicate to a player like Mack must be pulled from somewhere else.
Even if Mack gets more attention as a pass-rusher next year and suffers a downturn in production there, he should still be a dominant force as a run defender, and there is nothing to suggest that he can’t still improve his rush skills and become even more productive. Miller has shown too many fluctuations to his play, and while he ended the season on a crazy run, he is playing hard-ball right now for a blockbuster contract, and who knows how much that will dull his appetite for that kind of impact this season.
I would expect both players to have fine seasons again in 2016—they are both too good not to—but Mack is the guy that should have the better year, and could rival the best defenders in the game with even a small step forward in his production.