The linebacker position has seen a drop in value over the past decade or so. The nickel package has effectively become the base defense of the NFL, and so linebackers aren’t being drafted as highly.
However, the more a prospect can do, the more valuable he is, and being able to affect the quarterback is a very valuable skill. Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders is big, long, athletic, and has experience playing in space as well as rushing the passer. Altogether, that makes him an enticing package for NFL teams.
The New York Giants still need help at the second level of their defense. A player like Sanders, who can be moved around the defensive formation, could be very appealing in Wink Martindale’s defense. But is that enough to make the Giants draft Sanders highly?
Prospect: Drew Sanders (42)
Games Watched: vs. Cincinnati (2022), vs. South Carolina (2022), vs. Texas A&M (2022), vs. Alabama (2022)
Games Played: 27
Tackles for a loss: 16.0
Forced fumbles: 3
Passes defensed: 7
Games Played: 12
Tackles for a loss: 13.5
Forced fumbles: 3
Passes defensed: 5
Best: Length, athleticism, versatility, competitive toughness, processing speed, pass rush
Worst: Experience at linebacker, awareness in space
Projection: A starting SAM linebacker in a multiple defense.
Arkansas’ Drew Sanders is a long, athletic, and competitive linebacker prospect.
Sanders played both off-ball and edge defender for the Arkansas defender. He’s an athletic and long linebacker with good range in space and explosive when playing downhill.
Sanders appears to be a smart linebacker and shows good processing speed. He’s generally quick to diagnose the offense and wastes little time in getting moving toward the ball. Sanders is a relatively rangy linebacker and is able to pursue ball carriers across the field. His versatility to play the run, rush the passer, and be a factor in coverage allows him to produce and impact the game in a variety of ways.
He quickly gets good depth when dropping into shallow zones as a coverage player, and has solid balance. He has a quick downhill trigger and generally takes sound angles to the ball. Sanders also has enough size and athleticism to match up with most running backs and tight ends in coverage. He’s a surprisingly smooth mover in space for a taller linebacker, and has enough strength that he won’t be outmuscled by a tight end at the catch point.
Sanders is, above all, a tough and competitive player. He’s unafraid of contact and is completely willing to take on offensive line blocks as a run defender and pass rusher. He’s relentless when rushing the passer and is willing to fight his way through multiple blocks, and is also willing to pursue ball carriers across the field.
Drew Sanders is new to the linebacker position after two years of playing EDGE for Alabama. And while he clearly processes information quickly on tape, there are still instances when he’s noticeably sorting through his keys and reads. Likewise, Sanders can be seen defending grass at times as offensive players enter his zone without being picked up. He can also guess wrong when in coverage in an attempt to play fast, and looks more like an athlete running around rather than a “linebacker”.
Sanders has upside as a pass rusher, but will need to continue to refine his technique in that regard. He relies on a bull rush with a swim move as a counter, but would do well to emphasize his length and athleticism over pure power.
Overall Grade: 7.7
Drew Sanders projects as a starting SAM linebacker at the NFL level.
He might start his career as a rotational player who comes onto the field as a designated pass rusher, taking advantage of his length and downhill explosiveness. Sanders is still very new to playing off-ball linebacker, and his best football is ahead of him. But for now, he’ll probably be best in situations where there isn’t too much on his mental plate.
He seems to be a smart player who processes information quickly, but he doesn’t have enough experience to be truly instinctive. He still needs to read and react to the offense, and his future defensive coordinator should do as much as possible to allow Sanders to play fast. That said, it shouldn’t take long for Sanders to push for more snaps on defense. He’s an athletic linebacker and has the versatility to be a true three down player.
Sanders’ experience as an edge defender should give him particular appeal to teams that run “positionless” defenses. He can move between off-ball linebacker and EDGE depending on the down, distance, and defensive package. Sanders still needs to hone his technique when taking on blocks, but that too will come with time and coaching.
Drew Sanders’ best football is almost certainly still ahead of him, and he has the potential to become an impact player if he can reach his full ceiling.