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Making the case: Drew Sanders or Trenton Simpson?

Which linebacker is a better fit for the Giants defense?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants added Bobby Okereke to their previous sieve-like linebacker corps from the 2022 season. Okereke will assume the role of linebacker one on Wink Martindale’s aggressive defense, which features a lot of different personnel packages. The presence of Okereke is comforting, but who is starting next to the former Indianapolis Colt?

Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers are two rookies from last year who may receive the first crack at the starting job. The former was benched for Jarrad Davis at the end of the season, and the latter tore his ACL in the preseason after a promising training camp. Davis was retained and will have a realistic shot at earning the starting role next to Okereke in Week 1.

Base and Nickel personnel require two linebackers on the field; the competition in training camp will be noteworthy, but even if the Giants do have some faith in one of these three linebackers, selecting Arkansas’ Drew Sanders or Clemson’s Trenton Simpson could still be a possibility.

Giants fans regrettably learned the value of depth last season as Big Blue cycled through Tae Crowder and Austin Calitro before settling on Jaylon Smith at linebacker. The second level of Martindale’s positionless defense remains an issue as Joe Schoen turns his attention to the 2023 NFL Draft.

Iowa’s Jack Campbell is my linebacker one in the draft. Campbell is seemingly constructed in a lab as a linebacker; he can stack and shed, scrape and locate, and does a great job understanding positioning, and the finer details of playing linebacker. Both Sanders and Simpson aren’t quite Campbell in terms of true linebacking, but they offer other skills that are invaluable.

Here’s the argument for Drew Sanders and Trenton Simpson:

Drew Sanders

Sanders is a long and explosive playmaker who was a five-star recruit as an athlete coming out of Denton, Tex. He played his first two years as an edge defender for Alabama, but he couldn’t find the starting lineup. He had 12 pressures on 56 pass-rushing reps through his two seasons with Alabama before transferring to Arkansas where he transitioned to linebacker.

His skillset flashed for the Razorbacks. With just one year at linebacker, he was already a Butkus award finalist after recording 103 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, five passes defended, and three forced fumbles. Sanders did most of his damage as a pass-rusher, recording 9.5 sacks and 39 pressures while excelling as a QB spy.

Arkansas used him like Dan Quinn utilizes Micah Parsons’ skills during his rookie season - in passing situations, Sanders’ past experience as an edge defender was leveraged. Sanders rushed the passer 148 times while dropping into coverage 356 times in 2022.

His athletic ability and movement skills are very impressive - Sanders is just a very fluid mover. He’s excellent flying downhill and does a great job in pursuit. He did not test at the combine, but he presumably would have tested very well.

I love the idea of Sanders joining the Giants. Other than the need at linebacker, New York is thin at edge behind Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari. Jihad Ward is a big-bodied edgewho may kick inside in passing situations. Elerson Smith can’t stay healthy, and Tomon Fox provided adequate snaps last season but is a replaceable player.

If Thibodeaux or Ojulari - who spent much of 2022 injured - fail to stay healthy, then the Giants starters at edge will be in a precarious situation. Sanders would provide a major upgrade behind Ojulari and Thibodeaux; Outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins would be delighted to work with the hybrid linebacker (I’m imagining). Sanders can play edge in passing situations, while linebackers coach John Egorugwu develops him as an off-ball player.

Selecting Sanders helps the Giants’ defense at two positions. He will have to get better in the tackle box and clean up his tackling, along with his ability to stack and shed. The tackling was a problem in 2022 - Sanders had 22 missed tackles, a rate of 19.6%. He also only has one year of starting in general at the collegiate level. However, his refined pass-rushing nature and ability to spy the quarterback are solid foundational traits that can be used effectively by Wink Martindale and his staff.

Trenton Simpson

Like Sanders, Simpson was a five-star recruit out of the Charlotte, N.C. area. Simpson absolutely looks the part of a modern-day NFL linebacker, with the necessary athletic ability to play sideline-to-sideline:

The Clemson defense used Simpson all across their defense over the last few seasons. He recorded 72 tackles, four for a loss, 2.5 sacks, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles in 2022.

Similar to Sanders, he doesn’t play through contact well within the tackle box. He’s still raw trusting his eyes and positioning himself advantageously. I appreciate his game coming forward on the blitz, but he’s not nearly as refined as Sanders - Simpson is more like a bull in a china shop.

Simpson’s athletic ability allows him to spy the quarterback sufficiently, and his movement skills suggest he has some upside in man coverage. He needs some work recognizing routes behind him in zone coverage. He was solid at everything in college, but not necessarily spectacular at anything in particular.

The case for Simpson would be as a sub-package linebacker that gives Martindale a specific package against 11 or 12 personnel packages that feature an athletic tight end. A nickel front with Okereke and Simpson allows the Giants to go heavier, which theoretically would assist their ability to stop the run.

Simpson’s upside in coverage and ability to blitz also would provide Martindale the flexibility to send pressure from anywhere. New York led the league by a wide margin in quarter personnel (seven or more defensive backs) last season.

Was that by necessity? Would Martindale still run quarter 10% of the time if he had linebackers that he trusted? I’m not sure, but I know Martindale loves different personnel groupings, and Simpson would allow him to be pliable with how he employs his personnel.

Final thoughts

Sanders and Simpson would benefit from a more positionless, multiple-front, defense that likes to blitz. Neither are refined at playing linebacker in the box. Still, both players possess translatable NFL traits, and Martindale would carve out important roles for each of their skill sets. However, if I’m choosing, I’m going with Sanders.

If I were Sanders, I’m hoping to go to a defense coached by Wink Martindale - it perfectly fits his skill set. The Alabama-turned-Arkansas product provides so much value as a pass rusher. He’s quick, knows how to use his hands, can flatten at the top of the pass-rushing arc, and provides strength on contact when rushing the passer. Sanders can win with speed, power, technique, and with the necessary bend to threaten offensive tackles.

Sanders has more potential than Simpson. If Sanders fails to develop as an off-ball linebacker, he’ll provide value through getting after the quarterback. If the Giants want Sanders, they may have to select him in round one; that may be too rich for me, depending on who else is available in the draft.

Sanders is still very raw at linebacker, and the selection would be more upside and ceiling based, than a safer floor pick. However, I can’t say I’d be very upset by this linebacker selection based on Sanders’ traits, size, athletic ability, versatility, the Giants’ need for edge defenders, and my trust that Martindale would leverage his skills appropriately.