Head-to-head: Mack vs. Barr

The Vikings could very well go defense with their first pick of the draft. If that's the case, two linebackers, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr, would receive heavy consideration. We examine what they would bring to the team and what they did in college.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories leading up the 2014 draft that compares top prospects head-to-head by position and what they could potentially bring to the Vikings, whether they keep the eighth pick, trade down or wait on a position until the second or third round.

If the Vikings stay at Pick No. 8 of next month's draft, one of their primary need positions is at linebacker. When the eighth pick arrives, there are only two potential players the Vikings would consider at outside linebacker – Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr. A case can be made for both.

The Vikings have a solid linebacker in Chad Greenway, but the starters at the other two positions have been in flux for the last couple of years and, if the Vikings don't go quarterback with their first pick, they will likely be staring down the two linebackers atop draft boards and looking at which of them can be the biggest difference-maker in the Minnesota offense.

The case for Mack: One of the reasons why Mack has been climbing the draft charts to the point where many mock drafts have him gone before the Vikings are scheduled to pick is that he is an athletic specimen like few others.

A fifth-year senior, Mack has proved incredibly durable, starting all 48 games he played his college career, but there are few players who have the natural ability Mack has. He set NCAA career records for most tackles-for-loss (75) and forced fumbles (16) – two of the primary factors that define playmakers – as well as 28.5 sacks and two blocked kicks on special teams.

He has prototypical height (6-2¾) and weight (251), but further made his case at the NFL Scouting Combine. Not only did he measure with long arms (33¼ inches) and big hands (10¼ inches), he wowed scouts with a 40-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump.

He is a coach's dream because he combines excellent consistent production with being a hard worker on the practice field and in the weight room. He is a wrap-up tackler who hits with explosion and has the agility to take on tight ends, running backs and crossing slot receivers in coverage.

The only downside to his game is that he played at Buffalo and was a man among boys. While some small-college players thrive in the NFL, their learning curve is longer and veteran quarterbacks have a way of showing them something they have never seen before and using their eyes to move a young defender where the QB wants them to go. While elite athletes are always going to have a leg up on success, the biggest jump defensive players have to deal with is the level of quarterback talent they face. Suffice to say, Buffalo didn't face a lot of high-end competition and whoever drafts Mack – the Vikings or anybody else – will have to be patient because Mack's learning curve will be steeper than most.

The case for Barr : Barr, like Mack, has been praised for his on-field leadership, except his comes from UCLA, which plays big-boy football on a weekly basis. He isn't a big "rah, rah" guy, but he gets the job done, doesn't get taken out of his game mentally and is respected by every teammate and coach. Barr remains a work in progress, having spent his first two seasons at UCLA as a fullback/H-back on offense before switching over to linebacker in 2012, but his résumé is as good or better than Mack's.

While he doesn't have the long-term experience that Mack has at the position, he is every bit as explosive and, in the Vikings system, a strong case can be made that he is the man for the job in Mike Zimmer's defense. He's two inches taller than Mack and has better production across the board– 23.5 sacks, 41.5 tackles-for-loss and nine forced fumbles in two seasons. Mack set NCAA records for tackles-for-loss (75) and forced fumbles (16), but he did that in four seasons against lesser competition. Double Barr's numbers had he played four seasons at OLB and you have 83 tackles-for-loss, 47 sacks and 18 forced fumbles.

On the field, Barr is almost without peer. He has elite on-field speed at his position and, when he comes on an outside blitz, his closing speed is frightening to quarterbacks watching game film. He makes up for getting caught leaning when a receiver changes direction, but has long strides that eat up the cushion in a hurry. He is a superior tackler and takes angles on plays away from him that prevent them from being long gainers.

In many ways, watching Barr on tape is similar to watching Greenway when he was at Iowa. Barr has better closing speed and was cut loose after the QB more than Greenway, but they have a lot of similarities in the way they read and react. If the Vikings believe he could have a similar career, nobody would complain and they won't entertain trade offers.

No matter how you look at it, if one or both of those players are available, the Vikings will have good reason to select either Mack or Barr. It seems pretty clear that Barr will be available. Mack is another story.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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