Howie Long: Khalil Mack can be a 'generational' player

Raiders Hall of Famer Howie Long believes Khalil Mack might be the next big thing in football. Getty Images

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Khalil Mack made history last year by becoming the first player in NFL history to be named first-team All-Pro at two positions -- defensive end and outside linebacker -- in the same season.

"It's still kind of weird because I don't know how it works," Mack said in the offseason, laughing. "I didn't know if it was an accident or if I was good enough to get that accomplishment legit, but at the same time it's all about grinding. I'm a grinder. You can look at those things, but you can't really focus on them for long. I've seen it happen, and I want to see if I can make it happen again."

Unlikely, at least not with the Associated Press adding "edge rusher" to the All-Pro team for hybrid-type players such as Mack, who is a leading candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year award after racking up 11 sacks for the Oakland Raiders and leading the league with 96 QB pressures this season, per Pro Football Focus.

And with Oakland starting rookie quarterback Connor Cook at the Houston Texans on Saturday, Mack and the defense will have to step up mightily for the wild-card Raiders to get their first playoff win since the 2002 season.

Postseason success is something the four other living Raiders who have been named first-team All-Pro at either linebacker or on the defensive line since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger know well. Throughout this past season, ESPN.com caught up with Hall of Famers Howie Long and Ted Hendricks, along with Rod Martin and Bill Pickel, to get their respective takes on Mack and what the future might hold for him.

How impressive is what Mack accomplished in being named All-Pro at two positions in the same season?

Martin (first-team All-Pro at OLB in 1984): It's an indication of what type of person and player he is. You have to be a smart individual; you have to know how to play the game; you have to be a student of the game of football of both positions. Different responsibilities. And I think he's handled it really well, along with his abilities to even grow on the field. He's in a position right now where he's still learning how to play both positions and he's already made All-Pro in both of them, so the sky's the limit. He's going to get better as the years go along.

Hendricks (first-team All-Pro at OLB for Raiders in 1980, 1982): It's pretty phenomenal. I've got an award out for best defensive end in college football and I go to the combine every year and see my finalists work out and I was noticing Khalil [in 2014]. And when I came back I told the lady I live with that he was the best one out there. Thank God he ended up in Raider hands.

Bill Pickel (first-team All-Pro at DT in 1986): Coming from the University of Buffalo, it speaks volumes of him, his character, his work ethic. He moves the pocket as well as anybody. Quarterbacks step up, move their feet, which is what you're trying to do. Everybody puts such an emphasis on sacking the quarterback, which is what you're trying to do. The numbers will come, that's for sure. But when you have the type of year that he had, now you're going to draw more attention, more double-teams.

Howie Long (first-team All-Pro at DE in 1984, 1985): I might be going against what you're doing here, but I see no relevance in it, and there's no disrespect. I look at the individual and what I see, because I don't judge things by how the AP or football writers view him. But I'm a big fan of his.

Interestingly enough, on every team there's usually a minimum of two and a maximum of seven knuckleheads on a roster. On this team, I don't see one knucklehead. And that's important when the best players are the best guys, and that is certainly the case with Khalil and the quarterback [Derek Carr]. But it starts with that guy [Mack], both from a mindset and a practice standpoint. ... I told him last summer, 'Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.' Because after the year he had, now even the peanut vendor's going to hit you. They're going to chip him and double-team and triple-team him. And they did.

How unique must his skill set be for him to do that at such a relatively young age in the game?

Martin: It's being a student of the game. It's studying your craft and studying your film, your film work, studying what the opposition is doing, what you have to do to get to the quarterback in situations, what plays you have to maybe even change in situations on the field with your teammates. Being a leader out there, man, and it comes from being a person that puts in the work. Puts in the hard work and it shows that he puts in the hard work.

Hendricks: Oh yeah, it's really unique. First of all, you have to be big enough to be a defensive end and then, not only that, but be quick enough and agile enough to be a stand-up outside linebacker.

Pickel: He's an extremely dynamic player. Not only do you have to drop in coverage to play the linebacker position, but the guys you're covering these days are extremely, extremely talented. Tremendous speed throughout the league at all positions. The skill guys are second to none now. These guys now are bigger, stronger, faster and the game has changed now where they take care of themselves.

It's very impressive. He comes off the corner, he drops back in coverage, he's multi-faceted in skill sets. He can rush them from anywhere and then go back to outside linebacker and drop into pass coverage. ... It speaks volumes about his character. I haven't heard anyone say a negative thing about him. He appears to be a high-quality guy.

Long: You have to lead by example -- my 80th play has to look the same as my first play. I see that with Khalil. He's unique in the sense that there may be a guy or two in the league that can get to the quarterback better than him. And there may be a guy who's better at the point of attack. But nobody's better at both. He's great in a phone booth and he's great in space.

He's a six-story building and his elevator's on Floor 3. He can still evolve and grow. Now though, it's time to fight. Not really fight, but you know? I don't think I had one personal foul in my career. Now, that being said, no one can ever say I never brought it.

Did your skill set fit that mold?

Martin: We did it. That's what we were. We played a 3-4 defense, which we had four linebackers. But we still were the defensive ends rushing from the outside as well. ... At the time our defensive coordinator, Charlie Sumner, thought we could do more things with the four linebackers. The linebackers were versatile, could do more things on the football field.

Hendricks: Yeah, a little bit, because if you're given a chance to be a stand-up person, you don't have to mess around with offensive tackles and stuff. It's a mismatch, if you can get it, to have a running back blocking you, OK?

Pickel: Let me tell you, there were some zones that had me drop back into coverage, and every opposing quarterback knew it. They got targets for the guy I was covering. That was not a win-win situation for me, that's for sure.

Long: When I first got to the Raiders, I was really raw, a little like Khalil, small-school guy. ... But my defensive line coach, Earl Leggett, who was responsible for Bill Pickel, responsible for Greg Townsend, responsible for Sean Jones, responsible for me -- that's [362.5] sacks there -- built all of us, and what did we all have in common? Bill Pickel, Rutgers, a 6-foot-6 nose guard, playing out of position. Greg Townsend had never put his hand on the ground before he got to us. Sean Jones didn't even know how to get in a stance and I didn't know a thing about football. So [Leggett] built all of us from the ground up.

I thought initially he couldn't find a place for me. I was thinking, "God, I'm bad, he's moving me from here to there to there." Little did I know, in his mind he was preparing me to be able to play right end, left end, right defensive tackle, left defensive tackle and the nose. And at that time there was no one who could do that. ... Within generations there are guys that do it. And that's what I talk about with Khalil -- he has an opportunity to be a generational player. How many people can say that? I'm excited for him and I'm excited when they get more bodies around him.

How tough is it to transition from one position to another in the same game?

Martin: You know, it really wasn't that hard. ... Ted and I, we both started at the outside linebacker position and in passing situations, I went inside mostly to cover running backs; Ted became the blitz man, the extra guy that was going to rush. So if you play multiple positions you have to do multiple things on the field, you've got to address it and be ready for it to happen. You've got to be smart and be a student of the game. I go back to saying a student of the game and being productive and knowing what to do.

Hendricks: Yeah, because you're not down in a three-point stance, you know? I was a defensive end in college football and I was a stand-up defensive end. I always say I never stooped so low to put my hand on the ground.

Pickel: I think it's a little more doable now for a true defensive end to go stand up at the outside linebacker stand-up position. I was a nose guard/defensive tackle. It's a little different. I certainly didn't have the speed that Khalil Mack has; very few people do. He's a very talented athlete and he has size -- again, size, speed and strength. He's the whole package.

Long: Today's game, there are guys that stand up, put their hand on the ground, but there's nobody like [Mack]. There's nobody like Von Miller. But there are things that Von does that maybe Khalil can't do, but there are also things that Khalil does than Von can't do. It's like Baskin-Robbins, different flavors of ice cream. There are different kinds of defensive tackles. There are big, physical, dominant defensive tackles, and then there's Aaron Donald, who-s 6-feet tall and 290 (pounds) and unblockable. It's all different.

Has Khalil evolved into the future of the position?

Martin: Oh yeah, a hybrid, for sure. And he's going to get better. That's the great thing about being a Raider fans and being a Raider yourself -- he's going to get better as a player.

Hendricks: Hybrid, yeah, definitely. I think they were more defined as players before. You were either a linebacker or a down lineman.

Pickel: Yeah, I think so. You either have great big guys now playing inside on the defensive line, defensive ends that are on the bigger side but still have speed and can either rush the passer or play the run, and then you have the hybrid, which he is now. Opposing offenses have to look and try to figure out, what is he doing? Is he coming? Is he dropping? Where is he? That creates a lot of problems.

Long: There are always guys that give you a glimpse of the future. Maybe Gene Upshaw. Ted Hendricks. Lawrence Taylor was a glimpse of the future. Kellen Winslow was a glimpse of the future. Mike Haynes. People keep saying [Mack is] the next LT. There is no next LT. I haven't seen it. He's the best front-seven player I've ever seen -- Lawrence Taylor.

That being said, this guy, I don't know that [Mack] necessarily has Lawrence's disposition but I think he has a shot to be that kind of player. I'm a big fan. I'm extremely impressed with where he is right now, where he's taken himself to, but he's at Base Camp 3 and it's a climb up Everest. If you're great, and you want to continue to be great and you want to be one of the greatest. He has that opportunity. Not a lot of people can say that. Hybrid? I don't know. I view him as a complete football player.

How many sacks could you have had if you had Mack's role, or does that even apply?

Martin: Without dropping back, being a linebacker, doing all that stuff? I would have had probably the same, too (laughs). It all depends on the scheme, of course, too. I had Lyle Alzado in front of me and his job was to control that area and to knock out everything that was coming towards us, and if he didn't get it, then I would get it and we would make the tackle. One of us would make the tackle and make sure it didn't affect the whole team.

But you've got to have somebody coming from the outside with abilities too, you know? And I think adding the players that Reggie [McKenzie, Oakland's general manager] has added on defense, it's going to make everybody better, and Khalil, for sure, he's going to be in more in one-on-one situations instead of somebody hitting him and then the running back coming over and hitting him, keeping him from rushing the quarterback.

Hendricks: Fifteen sacks? That's a lot [in reference to Mack's 2015 total]. I don't know. It's something I never thought of because not only that, but he's got to drop back for pass coverage, too.

Pickel: It's a different thing. I had 12½ and 11½ sacks in back-to-back years at defensive tackle. You have to be a complete player, you have to play against the run, you have to play against the pass.

Long: He needs help. I was lining up next to Greg Townsend. How are you going to defend that? Reggie [McKenzie] has done a fabulous job of building this thing. He's more Ron Wolf than Ted Thompson ... and when you look at our old teams, it was a Noah's Ark of a team.