Athleticism is something that’s become more and more coveted at the linebacker position in the NFL Draft as the league is centered around the passing game. The Las Vegas Raiders are in the market for a backer and Arkansas’ Drew Sanders, who was the No. 1 ranked athlete coming out of high school, could be exactly what they’re looking for.
Sanders originally went to Alabama and lined up as an edge rusher before transferring and switching positions for the Razorbacks. That decision ended up being fruitful as he was a finalist for the Butkus Award and received the second-highest PFF grade (79.2) among SEC backers.
Coverage is where the unique athlete stood out the most in Fayetteville, posting the fifth-best coverage grade (77.8) among his peers and tieing for the most defensive stops with 17. Unsurprisingly, he continued to shine at the NFL Combine with an 8.97 Relative Athletic Score (RAS).
But the numbers only tell part of the story as his film is even more impressive.
This first clip will show off Sanders’ instincts in coverage as he picks up one of those 17 stops.
Arkansas is playing Cover 1 where Sanders is the low-hole defender and his responsibility is essentially to read the quarterback’s eyes and find a way to help his teammates. He works for depth initially to help discourage the quarterback from throwing to the slot receiver running the in route just beyond the sticks.
Simultaneously, he sees the outside receiver from the other side of the field running a short drag route, which could be trouble as the outside corner is playing off coverage and will have to fight through the trash. So, Sanders starts to drive on the receiver and once the ball gets there, he’s in a position to make an impact tackle and keep this to a two-yard gain.
That’s impressive field vision for someone who basically just started playing the position.
Drew Sanders avoid the pick and his closing speed helps force a FG pic.twitter.com/4ak27apEfe— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 14, 2023
This next play is similar to the last one as it highlights Sanders’ instincts again and his athleticism.
It’s third and five near the goal line so the Razorbacks call Cover 0 which puts the linebacker in man coverage on the back. The Gamecocks actually have a pretty good counter as the running back runs a wheel route out of the backfield and the receiver is on the short drag which creates a natural pick or rub route. In other words, it’s a good man-beater, in theory...
The problem South Carolina runs into is Sanders recognizes the passing concept to avoid getting picked and giving the back a walk-in touchdown. From there, his speed takes over as he closes to make a tackle in front of the sticks and actually ends up raking the ball out to force a field goal attempt.
If you ever hear a coach or scout talking about “play speed” this is what they mean. It’s the ability to mentally recognize what’s going on and then have the movement skills to execute, and that’s exactly what we see here from the Arkansas product.
Drew Sanders’ background as an EDGE comes in handy pic.twitter.com/abKhc6ORkl— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 14, 2023
Sanders’ background as an edge rusher is part of what makes him a unique prospect as he can be used from multiple alignments, and we get an example of that here.
He’s lined up as the right outside linebacker on the line of scrimmage at the bottom of the screen. His get-off immediately puts vertical pressure on the offensive tackle as he taps into that impressive 1.61-second 10-yard split time he showed off at the combine.
It looks like Sanders is attempting a ghost rush where he fakes a long-arm move and works back outside to win around the edge. The tackle takes the bait and the backer does a good job of maintaining his balance through contact and take a look at the bend he has at the top of the rush.
His inside foot is pointed straight at the quarterback and he comes flat down the 37-yard line to get a sack. Sanders adds a cherry on top by swiping at the ball to get a strip-sack and create a third and long situation.
Drew Sanders with a beautiful open-field tackle pic.twitter.com/b4OXVfBzcS— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 14, 2023
RPOs put linebackers in a bind and test their athleticism, especially when they’re run out of an empty formation for a quarterback draw which is what Alabama calls in the clip above.
Sanders fulfills his coverage responsibilities by matching the tight end on the short out route. Once he reads draw, he comes downhill and forces the quarterback to bounce and then he has the movement skills to change directions and make the tackle against an athletic quarterback in space.
For context, that quarterback—Jalen Milroe—was one of the top-rated dual-threat QBs in the 2021 recruiting class and averaged 8.5 yards per carry in limited action last season.
Love how Drew Sanders uses his hands pic.twitter.com/X0q24YiN9Y— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 14, 2023
I want to preface this section by saying stacking and shedding is far from one of Sanders’ strengths and he needs to get stronger to take on blocks at the next level. However, reps like this one are encouraging for his development.
Bama is running a weakside zone run and Sanders is responsible for the backside A-gap between the center and left guard. He comes downhill to fulfill his assignment and the right defensive tackle does a decent job of altering the left guard’s path to the second level.
That, combined with Sanders using his hands to take on the block, allows him to break free and be in a perfect position to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage when the running back cuts back.
Again, I wouldn’t consider this a strength of his game necessarily, but his technique is encouraging to suggest he’ll be able to add getting off blocks to his toolbelt after some more time in the weight room.
Drew Sanders uses his athleticism to slip the block and make the play pic.twitter.com/VdiJLbobab— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 14, 2023
We’ll end with a rep that shows off how the Razorback is currently effective at being able to slip blocks, even against other top-tier athletes.
BYU is running a read-option where the primary run concept is power with the backside tackle—Blake Freeland, who posted a 9.83 RAS score at the combine—is pulling. Sanders does a great job of reading the play and coming downhill to beat the tackle to the spot.
Right before contact, he uses his athleticism to change the angle on Freeland and slips the block with a shoulder dip. On top of that, he makes the play right at the line of scrimmage with a 300-pound dude hanging onto him.
I’ve already touched on one of my biggest concerns with the Arkansas product’s game, his strength at the point of attack. He struggles to get extension against bigger offensive linemen, making it difficult to stack and shed blocks. Also, he gets pushed around a bit when he has to take on blocks head-on, so he’ll need to spend some time in the weight room.
Sanders’ next issue is somewhat related to the one mentioned above as he missed 22 tackles at a rate of 19.6 percent as those figures were the most and fifth-worst, respectively, among SEC linebackers last season. Adding some strength will help bring those numbers down but technique-wise, he does have a habit of lunging and not bringing his feet with him when tackling which he’ll have to clean up as well.
All-in-all, Sanders is a very intriguing prospect who would be a great addition to the Raiders with the 38th pick overall. Iowa’s Jack Campbell is still my top linebacker but if he’s off the board, the Razorback would be an excellent consolation prize.