Better in 2016: Khalil Mack or Von Miller?

Sam Monson takes a look at the development of Khalil Mack and Von Miller thus far, predicting who will have the better 2016.

| 5 months ago
(Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

(Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

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.

2016-07-04_09-45-40

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.

mack-miller_pff-grades

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.

KhalilMack

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Browns have a way of making just about any opponent look good.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      actually mitchell schwarzt is the best RT in football and blanked von miller in 2015, smart signing by the chiefs this year

      • Raiderfusion

        Great point on Schwartz being the best RT in the game. I wanted him in the worst way for the Raiders, but alas was not to be. It was a great pick up for the Chiefs. These 3 teams are going to be slugging each other in the mouth week in and week out during the season. I wouldn’t want it any other way, Iron hardens Iron. By the end of the season all 3 of these teams are going to be really battle tested. There won’t be a team in the playoffs wanting to play any of these 3 teams. Can’t wait for TC.

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          raiders have a solid young option at RT already in austin howard. AFC west will def be exciting this year, and you can’t count out old man rivers down in SD either.

  • Patrick Fouhy

    It’s exciting to see how strong the Defenses are in the AFC West, primarily the pass rushing. Should be a competitive year within the division. I think with the additions around Mack, he’s set up to have a monster year building on the success of last season. I’m hoping for more consistency out of Mack in his sacks, I love seeing a guy get 5 sacks in one game, but I’d also like to see him spread the wealth out and end up with 20+ sacks this year.

    Miller has a great advantage from being surrounded by a number of the same faces from last year, that’ll help the front 7 of Denver. If Oakland’s offensive line upgrades translate from paper to the field, that is going to be two great contests to watch. That big, O line against that front 7. Can’t wait!!!

    • codered5

      Keep in mind everyone that ends up with 20 sacks has at least one 4 or 5 sack game. The last person to do it was justin houston and he had a 4 sack game to end the season. Shoot von miller has never had 20 sacks. My point is no matter how you do it it is really hard to do so it is not a matter of khalil “spreading the wealth out”. Nobody does 1 and 2 sacks every game throughout the entire season plus guys have awesome games without getting a sack.

      • chuckdiesel86

        Mack had 5 sacks last year at Denver, if you watch Mack’s Top 100 video you’ll hear von Miller say that Mack “One man wrecked our whole team.” Khalil Mack is a special player who I predict to be a HOF player. The only thing he really needs to do is explode toward the QB when he gets through quickly, I saw a few sacks he missed by not running hard enough to the QB. He’ll get 20+ sacks next year with the help of our new secondary and the depth we now have on the D-Line, which will only get better when Aldon Smith comes back.

        • codered5

          Im with you in saying he’s great but I’m just saying that he doesn’t have to be more consistent. He’s the most consistent ed in the game it’s just that sacks are a crap shoot. Jj watt had 10 sacks a couple years ago (which is bad for him)and he basically gets to pick the weakest OLINEMAN on every team and destroy him and graded exceedingly well while doing so

  • Chris

    Hot take incoming: Miller is overrated and doesn’t deserve the money he’s holding out for.

    The point not mentioned here is each player’s position changes – previously both players were 4-3 SLBs who served as EDs on passing downs before becoming full-time 3-4 EDs in 2015. And the bottom line is, as an ED Miller is not as otherworldly as he was at SLB.

    The difference between the two players is evident in how they graded in 2014. Miller barely edged out Mack for the top spot overall, but did so by racking up an insane pass-rushing grade. Meanwhile Mack was much more balanced – he was still a great pass-rusher but he was also the best run-defender. AKA a more complete player.

    Fast forward to 2015 and they both switch to ED full-time. Mack still leads his position in run-defense while also posting great pass-rushing numbers – he’s still a complete player and takes home the top overall grade. Meanwhile Miller’s grading continues to be lopsided with comparatively lower run-defense marks paired with elite pass-rushing numbers. Not necessarily one-trick-pony status, but he definitely excels in one over the other.

    The issue for Miller? He used to be King as the only elite pass-rusher when he was a SLB, but there are several elite pass-rushing EDs. Meaning he suddenly isn’t otherworldly at the thing he does best. And that’s a problem when he’s looking to get paid like the best defender in league history.

    For example, before 2015 if you asked who is the best pass-rushing SLB Miller was far and away the top choice. He had no competition even in 2014 after Mack was drafted. But…in 2015 when you ask who is the top pass-rushing ED, suddenly there are many more names who can claim that title. Justin Houston? Michael Bennett? Olivier Vernon? Khalil Mack? Cameron Jordan? Even guys like Pernell McPhee and Jabaal Sheard enter the discussion based on their per-snap efficiency.

    I would argue Miller doesn’t deserve to get paid any more than that list of guys – he’s just one of a handful of elite pass-rushers who are pretty good against the run and he should get paid like it. He isn’t an otherworldly JJ Watt-esque defender when he’s at ED – he could make that claim at SLB but not anymore. Based purely on last season, if anyone deserves to get paid that way it’s Mack. He put up elite pass-rushing numbers while still leading all EDs in run-defense. Plus he’s two years younger.

    • anon76returns

      Not a great hot take, IMO.
      They both were slotted as “4-3 SAM”, but Del Rio (and Dennis Allen) employed a 4-3 under scheme that had the Sam backer up on the line of scrimmage and presented a 5 man front that was virtually identical to a 3-4 look. In addition, while no other Sam Backers (outside of Seattle/Jax/Atlanta’s Leos) rushed the passer more than ~40% of the time, both Mack and Miller were rushing the passer at an 85%-90% clip. And that’s just considering base looks- in nickel both teams were running a 4-2 front that had Miller & Mack playing with their hand in the dirt as edge-setting defensive ends.
      As a result, both players have been edge rushers throughout their careers, even if PFF had them graded as 4-3 OLBs.

      it’s also not a good hot take because it ignores the 2011-2013 seasons where Miller had the best run defense grades among edge-rushers, when he was asked to do more against the run. And, while I don’t really question PFF’s methods too much, opposing RBs ran off right tackle/right end only 59 times against the Broncos last season (playoffs + regular), and only gained 136 yards (2.3 yards per carry). Opponents were doing their best to avoid running at Miller (only 12.5% of runs went at RT/RE), and when they did run at him (or his backup), they were exceedingly unsuccessful (only 8.6% of yardage picked up around RT/RE). In comparison, opposing RBs went at RT/RE on 63 of 406 carries on the season (15.5% of runs), and picked up 247 of 1678 yards (14.7%). Clearly Miller had more help inside (from Wolfe/Trevathan/Marshall), but it’s still striking that opponents avoided Miller’s side more and were relatively less successful running at him than running at Mack.
      Certainly there is consensus among graders out there that Mack was doing more than Miller, but I’m not convinced that is because Mack was actually better against the run (rather than having to do more to cover for sub-par teammates).
      What I do know is that PFF has rated Miller as an elite run defender in 4 of his 5 seasons, and that in the one year they didn’t rate him elite (“only” a +14 run defense grade, as opposed to his customary +25 to +30) he still had a run stop % of ~9% and opponents only gained 2.3 yards/carry running at him. I also know that Miller has graded at +50 or higher in four of his five seasons (all seasons where he played at 10 games), and he is by PFF grade or PFF pass rush productivity the best edge rusher in the league (either from 2015 alone, or from 2011-2015 cumulative). That seems more than worthy of a huge contract, and certainly more worthy than a 3rd year player who has not had the opportunity to show the same level of year-in year-out consistency.

      • codered5

        Bull shit wolfe was an elite run defender as an interior player. That’s y even with von off the field runs in that direction were unsuccessful.

        • anon76returns

          ?
          When did I say Wolfe wasn’t an elite run defender?
          And since Wolfe was so good, it left less for Von to do in terms of stuffing the run (potentially explaining the gap between Miller and Mack in number of run stops).

          • Chris

            I think he was saying Wolfe was also a huge reason why teams didn’t run to that side. I will agree with you here as well – playing on such a stacked D means there’s less plays where Miller has an impact. When Wolfe or Travathan or Jackson are making plays and getting positive grades, there’s less to eat for Miller. And based on his efficiency, Miller’s grade would only have gone up if he got more plays in his direction.

            But the flip side of that is also true – when everyone around you is grading well it makes you grade better too. The same sort of thing with Seattle’s secondary. Mack didn’t have as many talented guys around him yet he still managed to dominate.

      • Chris

        I can agree with most of this. I do agree that both played atypical roles as 4-3 Sams. My point is that atypical role played a HUGE role in Miller grading so “Elitely” in past seasons. Mack’s grade was much more balanced with better run marks. I think the move to 3-4 OLB has only highlighted this difference even more.

        Miller’s pass-rushing numbers were all-world at SAM, but as a true ED he doesn’t stand out among any of the handful of other Elite pass-rushers. And those guys play pretty similar run-defense compared to Miller. AKA – he doesn’t really stand out AS MUCH like he did at SAM. At SAM his was unique and dominant and all-world, and could make the argument deserved the highest contract in the game. But at ED he is just “one of the top 5″ and not deserving of that kind of contract anymore.

        I would argue you could take several of the Elite edge rushers, move them to SAM, and they would grade very similar to Miller. All-world pass-rushing numbers compared to a typical SAM, great run-defense, and zilch in the way of coverage.

        I guess my main point is the atypical role Miller played sort of breaks the grading system at SAM, and I feel it has overrated him. He’s still elite as an edge rusher, just not all-world best-defender-in-league-history status.

        • anon76returns

          I’m not sure if you’re saying Miller looked better because his grade was so much better than other 4-3 defenders, or if you’re saying that PFF graded him differently than they would have were he playing 3-4 OLB. If the latter, then I don’t know what to say, but if the former, then I strongly disagree. Von’s grade of 89.1 on 1071 snaps in the 2012 regular + postseason and his grade of 67.7 on ~1030 snaps in the 2015 regular + postseason are two of the highest graded seasons by any player at any position in the PFF era (which is to say nothing of his +51 grade in 2011, +42.8 in 1/2 of 2013, and 58.4 grade in 2014). He’s also ranked inside the top 12 of PFF’s top 101 in 4 of his 5 seasons, with the only exception being in 2013 when he only played in 8 games (and still earned the 68th highest grade). No other edge rusher in the league comes remotely close to that, so saying his reputation is simply due to the shallow competition at 4-3 OLB doesn’t hold water.
          For another opinion on the matter, see Monson’s article on why Miller should be the highest paid defender: https://www.profootballfocus.com/pro-why-von-miller-should-be-the-nfls-highest-paid-defender/

  • anon76returns

    I’m not at all a fan of the cursory analysis going on in the comparison here. First of all, Mack’s 82 pressures (and higher pass rushing grade) came on a lot more pass rushing snaps. Miler had a much better pass rushing productivity, and better pass rush grade per snap. And that is of course before you consider the playoffs, at which point the total # of pass rush snaps becomes more equivalent, but Miller’s pass rush grade and number of pressures far exceeds Mack’s.
    Similarly, Mack certainly had a better run defense grade in 2015, but opposing teams were running at Mack more than they were running at Miller (and were having greater statistical success running at Mack than running at Miller. Miller still had decent run stop % and run defense grade, but there’s only so much you can do when the opposition schemes to run away from you.
    I believe Mack is the better run defender, but by a lesser margin than PFF grades would indicate. I also believe that Von is indisputably the better pass rusher, and has been so every single season in the league. The question then becomes if you want an elite edge rusher do you want one who is better at run defense or better at getting the QB. For me the answer would be Miller.

    (as an aside, I think the “Mack is a safer bet” closing is a bit silly. Barring injury the Broncos defense will still be one of the top 2-3 defenses in the league, as it was in 2012, 2014, and 2015. Meanwhile Mack’s teammates are largely untested in JDR’s scheme or even in the NFL in general. IMO there is a lot more potential for Mack’s teammates to fold around him and thus make his grades look worse then there is for Miller to suddenly stop desiring to be the elite player that he has been throughout his career)

    • codered5

      Mack crushed miller’s run grades as a rookie in 2014 and has continued to since. If you really believe miller is even close to khalil as a run defender you disqualify your own opinion based bias. Yes von to me is better rushing the passer without question but to think that a team runs at khalil mack on purpose even tho he’s set the record for run grade is insane. Who was on the other side of khalil that teams should run away from?The gap between von and khalil as rushers is way smaller then the gap in run defense.

    • RunForItOrNot

      The bottom line is Miller elevated his game big time in the playoffs and took over the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl. He led a team with little to no offense to a title and without him they don’t sniff Super Bowl 50. That’s what great players do, step up their game in big moments. The truth is we don’t know if Mack can do that yet. I suspect he can, but taking over a playoff game when the offense is game planning to stop you – make you a special player. The Raiders will be in the playoffs soon and we’ll see about Mack. He’s got a much better offense around him than Miller had last season and now it’s time to see if he take his team to the playoffs and beyond.

  • Mike Riley

    Raider fan here for about 26 years. Can I take both Mack & Miller please? Also I still think AFC West finishes like so. Chiefs are the most consistent team in the division & win out right. Final wild card spot comes down to week 17 & Broncos win that game.

    1. Chiefs 11-5
    2. Broncos 10-6
    3. Raiders 9-7
    4. Dolts (doesn’t matter)

    • Jesse Gardner

      Boooo dude, a measly 2 win increase? We have 2 lockdown corners, a ferocious pass rush, and a great offense (if our healthy offense from last year is any indication) that had more sheeter depth to stay in high octane form all season. If everything goes right with minimal injuries, I could see us pulling 13 W’s out of our schedule, with 10 being our floor. If we can start the season with a winning streak, it will really help or chances into the difficult part of the schedule. BTW, the chiefs were garbage last year w/o Sean Smith, and that was with Houston. Now he’s gone permanently, and Justin either won’t be there or still be very rusty, so our chances are 100x better then they were last season. I realize high hopes have burned us in the past, but this is totally different, we’re totally different. Were almost exactly like the ’14 Vikings and Panthers, who dominated once all the young talent gained experience. Have some faith man, were set to go of this year.

      • Mike Riley

        I do have faith that’s why I’m expecting our first winning record in years. The only issue I have is there is a lot of hype surrounding our team (thanks in large part to David Carr giving us the verbal bj anytime he opens his mouth on NFLN). That all only adds unnecessary pressure to exceed those expectations. I just need to wait until the season starts to change my tune from 8-9 wins to 10-11.

        That first game will answer a lot of questions about my beloved team in New Orleans. Yes they were middle of the pack last year but they have a lot of young talent on D with Rankins, Cam Jordan, Anthony & Breaux the corner. They also have a guy that has not lost to us since an OT win back when Rich Gannon was still QB in which Brees played a near perfect game. Questions I want answered are:

        1. What kind of impact will Karl Joseph have as a rookie coming off the knee injury?
        2. How will this young team handle these newfound expectations?
        3. Will Derek Carr & Amati Cooper show significant improvement from last year when other than the Packer game were not very consistent?
        4. Will they play up to the competition like they did last year since this year the schedule looks a lot tougher on paper?
        5. Will Amerson & Reggie Nelson continue their stellar play from last season to provide us with a great backfield along with Smith & most likely Joseph or fall back to inconsistency shown in the past?
        6. Will the run game improve with a healthy Oline & new addition Osemele or will they continue to put the burden back on Carr’s right arm?
        7. Most importantly will Bruce Irvin & Shilique Calhoun, among others make offenses pay for constantly holding & doubling Mack about 90% of the snaps played every week?

        If the majority of those questions are answered I can see us at least winning 10, maybe 11. I can’t go as high as 13 without sounding like a homer.

        • DieHardKCfan4life

          Lol I completely agree as a chiefs fan. This is why I’m so thankful to have a schedule advantage against Oakland in 2016. Your team has improves significantly but getting a legit winning team together takes time. I like your predictions. I myself predicted this to be a 2013 year all over again. When the broncos chargers(replace them with the raiders) and chiefs all made the playoffs. Great writing.

          • Mike Riley

            I would take a playoff berth no matter how we can get it. Just too many wavering factors between now and January to just simply expect my team to finally break thru at this juncture.

  • Jesse Gardner

    Mack attack beats out the yawn that is Vonn! JJ they’re both badass, but I’d have to go with the more complete defender who has had far less help around him, especially when rushing the QB. The Raiders have had one of the worst pass defenses in the league since Mack got here, meaning QBs had plenty of open receivers to throw to. Sean Smith and Amerson will be a top 5 tandem, as will Mack and Irvin, which should give Mack close to the amount of help Vonn has had the last few years. Teams could literally double and triple team him on every play w/o worrying about someone on the other side making them regret it. No more. Mack is gonna DESTROY some mofo’s this year.

    • RunForItOrNot

      I think you are right on the money. The amount of talent the Raiders have on the front 7 will make the defense tough. Mack will see more double teams than he’s seen in the past, but any number of players you mentioned will be singled and make the play. All the talk about Von vs Mack is interesting, but I think Justin Houston in KC should be in the conversation too. He’s coming off a couple of injury plagued seasons, but is very talented. The AFC West has very, very good edge pass rushers.

      • DieHardKCfan4life

        Yes Houston was second in pressure in 2015 while only playing 11 games. He had one more than Mack and 10 more than Miller. You add that onto his 2014 campaign of 22 sacks well he has made a name for himself. I think with the other teams in the AFC west they “hope” Houston will fall off. Doubt he will but I’m a chiefs fan. We’ll get a better idea of how fast Houston will recover after training camp. Word is that he might not even make it on the PUP which would exclude him from the first 6 weeks. Houston has a drive and passion for the game that he’ll come back just the same.