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Raiders Draft 2023: Linebacker Drew Sanders

A unique Arkansas prospect who can anchor the middle or rush the passer

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri
Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders has the size and athleticism to either man the middle linebacker spot or be deployed as an edge rusher at the pro level.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Las Vegas Raiders defense has a dearth of needs and two of them are at middle linebacker and pass rusher. So why not kill two birds with one stone with one prospect?

That’d be Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, a prospect that offers a unique skill set of being able to anchor the middle of the defense and be deployed as an edge rusher at outside linebacker, too. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound junior has the angular frame to match up against offensive tackles on the edge and the range, explosiveness and versatility to be an effective run stopper and cover man in the middle.

Sanders’ combined all those attributes to produce a quality 2022 season as the Razorbacks’ MIKE with 103 total tackles (40 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and one interception. He ranked second in sacks in the SEC and fifth in the conference.

All those aforementioned traits and production are something the Raiders are in dire need of, no?

Tale of the Tape: Drew Sanders

  • School: Arkansas
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Height: 6-foot-5
  • Weight: 233 pounds
  • 2022 Stats: 103 total tackles (40 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 1 interception, 5 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles
  • Career Stats: 136 total tackles (56 solo), 16 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 1 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles

Sanders is a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who has the speed and fluidity to range all over the field. He’s also got an explosive bull rush with a mix of swim moves to get past offensive linemen enroute to either the quarterback or the ballcarrier to get sacks or stops for loss. When he diagnosis early, he’s a rapid read-react defender that can pack enough wallop to be a dynamic force — akin to how Denzel Perryman’s been in the Raiders defense manning the middle linebacker spot.

Arkansas v Brigham Young
Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, right, hits BYU wide receiver Keanu Hill to jar the ball loose during the two team’s games back in October.
Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images

Sanders would be a better fit for a 3-4 defense where he can shuttle from the interior spots or outside linebacker when needed. While he can play at out of the 4-3 alignment, he’d be more of a traditional MIKE as he’s rarely been a hands in the dirt type pass rusher. This isn’t to say he can’t be an outside rusher in that alignment, of course.

While he’s show the ability to be an explosive defender, like any prospect, there are area of opportunities in Sanders’ game.

First and foremost, scouts and NFL personnel people point to the one-year standout performance. Sanders has 27 career games under his belt, the most recent 12 at Arkansas this past season as a junior. He landed in SEC originally as a freshman at Alabama in 2020 before transferring to to Arkansas.

Second, his physical makeup. He has the height and length at 6-foot-5, but he’s light at 233 and can add more mass to increase his overall strength. Sanders has the frame to sustain more bulk and his overall athleticism can makeup for any lost speed due to becoming stronger. But getting a better base — much like the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby has done — would only help Sanders at the pro level against bigger, faster, and stronger offensive linemen and tight ends he’ll face as a run stopper and pass rusher.

Third, his diagnostic skills. When Sanders reads the play correctly, he can get here fast and with purpose. However, he’s susceptible to misdirection and when he reads it wrong, he is complete out of the play. As a MIKE at the NFL, a miss-read play can lead to an end zone visit from the opposition. Sanders’ late reaction also results in missed/whiffed tackles and affects his ability to wrap-up properly. This is in addition to his leverage as a defender and tackler allows the ballcarriers to slip away from his grasp.

Projections: Sanders is seen as a late Day 1/Day 2 pick that can go as high as the late first round to the second round and beyond. The NFL Combine measurements he posts — if he’s invited and participates — likely go a long way to determining Sanders’ projections. With Las Vegas owning an early second round pick, he may be a target there.