Drew Sanders, LB, Arkansas | NFL Draft Scouting Report

Is Arkansas LB Drew Sanders' scouting report strong enough to put him in the running for the top linebacker spot in the 2023 NFL Draft?

The 2023 NFL Draft linebacker class has been regarded by many as weaker than usual. On the surface, that appears to be the case, but there is upside present with prospects like Arkansas LB Drew Sanders. Sanders has his flaws, but he also has the kind of dynamic upside that’s unmatched in the class and the kind of upside that perfectly fits the modern NFL.

Drew Sanders NFL Draft Profile

  • Position: Linebacker
  • School: Arkansas
  • Current Year: Junior
  • Height/Weight: 6’4″, 235 pounds
  • Length: 32 1/8″
  • Hand: 9 3/4″

Sanders didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere in 2022. He was a five-star recruit in the 2020 class and an immediate contributor with the Alabama Crimson Tide. People knew who Sanders was when he transferred to Arkansas, but no one knew just how good he would be with a change of scenery.

Alabama wasn’t a bad place for Sanders. He saw playing time as a rotational defender and a quality special teamer in 2020, logging 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack in 2021. But it soon became clear that the rotation was too deep for Sanders to make a dent, so he sought out a new opportunity and found it with head coach Sam Pittman in Arkansas.

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At Arkansas, Sanders was moved off-ball after largely playing on-ball for Alabama. The Razorbacks didn’t stubbornly stick to that label, however. They moved Sanders around and indulged his versatility. The results were eye-opening.

In 12 games across the 2022 campaign, Sanders accrued 103 total tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, a pick, five pass deflections, and three forced fumbles. His season not only earned him first-team All-SEC honors but also revitalized his stock as an NFL draft prospect.

Drew Sanders Scouting Report

Sanders struck while the iron was hot, announcing his declaration ahead of bowl season. Does he deserve a place in the conversation as the best LB prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Positives

If you were to go to a Build-A-Linebacker store and construct the ideal modern LB, it would come out looking a lot like Sanders. Of course, it’s not just the idea of Sanders that’s appealing. Turn on the tape, and you’ll see he has the film to back up his raw talent and measurements.

The eye test is the first one that Sanders passes. At his size, the former five-star recruit has a long, lean frame with excellent overall reach. He’s also a borderline elite athlete for his size.

Sanders displays excellent initial burst and long-track explosiveness when triggering on plays. He can cover ground extremely quickly and close gaps from behind when pursuing laterally. Additionally, he offers a bristling first step as a pass rusher and can stress tackles to the apex with ease. When approaching contact, he brings a searing closing burst.

In space, Sanders shows off exceptional range. The Arkansas LB can track plays across the field and close ground with long-strider speed. As a QB spy, he’s able to run down passers roaming to the sideline.

Sanders’ straight-line burst and speed for his size invoke excitement, but he’s not merely a linear mover. The Arkansas LB is a spry lateral athlete with exceptional twitch and quickness on the horizontal plane. He’s a smooth, efficient mover with easy change-of-direction ability for his size.

Sanders has the throttle freedom to effortlessly sift through congestion and flow to the sideline when tracking plays. Moreover, he can use his smooth lateral agility to sidestep blocks and reposition himself, and swiftly traverse gaps and close off runners diverting outside.

As an athlete, Sanders is quick, fluid, and agile. As a processor, similar words come to mind. Routinely on tape, Sanders shows off good eyes, discipline, and recognition ability. He’s patient and composed when reading plays, and he doesn’t come downhill with too much haste, instead waiting until he’s properly diagnosed what’s in front of him to engage.

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That discipline is valuable for Sanders, but he doesn’t freeze, either. He flashes an incredibly quick trigger and impressive instincts on crucial downs, and can quickly recognize play directions based on blocking schemes. In run defense, Sanders has good gap discipline — showing both patience and adaptability at the second level.

In the passing game, Sanders identifies route concepts and quickly diagnoses plays before closing downhill. He’ll also quickly recognize screens and work to get ahead of plays. Against both screens and runs, he smartly engages blocks in space. At times, he’ll peek outside blockers and draw ball carriers inside, then swim around with his lateral quickness and wall them off.

Athleticism and instincts aside, linebackers always need to be able to finish when in position. Sanders shows promise here as well. While he could improve his play strength, he’s a fairly solid form tackler who uses his length to wrap up and envelop opponents. He’ll authoritatively wrap and wrench runners down with his length and reach. And with his short-area athleticism, Sanders can adjust tackling angles with little notice and re-center himself.

In spite of his lighter frame, Sanders brings visible physicality to the fold. He’s willing to hit receivers with force when closing on routes downhill, and he’ll jar opponents at the catch point to minimize RAC. He proactively uses his length to engage blockers in space, shave off blocks in congestion, and keep his frame clean.

As you might expect from a former five-star athlete with an OLB background, Sanders has definite chops as a pass rusher and can be an elite threat as an extra attacker. Especially in the modern NFL — where chess-piece linebackers with pass-rushing utility are growing more and more valuable — Sanders can be that kind of player.

Sanders is a high-energy pass rusher with natural ability rushing on-ball. He has a quick swim move off the line with his twitch and length, and he fights through blocks with successive moves. Sanders can also use his quick swim as an interior blitzer and rip through lingering blocks with his length.

Even with his lighter frame, Sanders generates impressive power for his size with explosiveness and length. He also has legitimate apex-winning speed, as well as excellent bend and ankle flexion. He corners easily around tackles with dip-and-rip moves, and he’s able to breach the pocket at tight angles. At that point, Sanders proactively uses his length to impact the quarterback.

Playing the MIKE for Arkansas in 2022, Sanders saw his highest snap count in coverage yet. Refreshingly, he brings plenty to like there as well. He has fluid hips and good footwork in space and has shown to transition downhill quickly out of his backpedal after anticipating and identifying underneath routes.

Off the line, Sanders is able to square up and jam receivers as an overhang defender before rotating his hips and resetting — disrupting and passing off receivers in succession. He remains keyed in on the QB’s eyes and can recognize intent while managing space.

With his range and length, Sanders can easily track down and wrangle running backs out of the backfield on swing and wheel routes. At the catch point, he uses his length to pry the ball free through the catch process.

Areas for Improvement

Sanders’ profile as a linebacker is surprisingly complete, especially for a third-year junior. That’s incredibly exciting, seeing how valuable versatile linebackers can be in the modern NFL. Even so, he’s not a perfect prospect.

Sanders’ biggest issue is play strength. His frame is very light relative to his height and length, which contributes to lacking play strength. He can be easily outmuscled by roaming offensive linemen in space and frequently struggles to deconstruct blocks.

Sanders will often experience delays when fighting through congestion to track plays laterally. Blocks can obstruct his path, delay his pursuit, and ultimately render him out of position.

Sanders’ lacking play strength noticeably impacts his consistency as a finisher, both when working through blocks and when attempting to secure tackles. He’ll sometimes lack the strength to finish tackles after flowing to the ball successfully. In essence, that lacking play strength can render Sanders’ plus athleticism and processing obsolete.

Sanders does have good form as a tackler, which invites optimism for his projection once he’s able to add mass to his frame. Yet, even then, there are times when Sanders could be a bit more controlled approaching the tackle point. He sometimes flips his hips into tackling angles too early and allows cutback opportunities for runners.

Sanders is occasionally too hasty off the snap, playing himself out of position when responding to misdirections. He’ll also occasionally lose track of RBs on passing downs when there’s a lot of clutter. And his long speed, while very good, is not elite.

Current Draft Projection for Arkansas LB Drew Sanders

Personally, I don’t have any first-round grades in the 2023 NFL Draft LB class, but Sanders is the closest to that distinction. He’s my LB1 and carries a top-50 grade as a prospect. Because of that positional scarcity early on, he’s a potential first-round selection and a priority prospect in the Day 2 range.

The 2023 NFL Draft LB class isn’t short on athleticism early, but beyond athleticism, there’s a reason Sanders might be the first linebacker taken. He’s incredibly explosive and agile for his 6’4″, 235-pound frame, to be sure. His ease of motion, burst, and suddenness allow him to both play in space and attack downhill.

All this being said, Sanders is much more than a raw athlete. His OLB background grants him immense pass-rushing utility out of the gate, with an already-established arsenal of pass-rushing moves. In his time at Arkansas, Sanders showed great promise as a read-and-react linebacker with MIKE capabilities, showing off the processing speed, reaction quickness, play recognition, and range to dominate the second level.

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Sanders is instinctive and disciplined in space, reliable and rangy flowing to the football, fluid in coverage, and a proactive playmaker when in position. He’ll need to keep getting stronger, as he may experience bumps in the road with his lighter frame at the next level. Even there, his length does help him counteract to a degree, and his athleticism is very translatable in all phases of the game.

In a modern NFL where do-it-all second-level defenders are coveted, Sanders is one of the best young, ascending talents available. His versatility and multiphase playmaking ability make him worthy of consideration in Round 1 or a priority Day 2 pick if he lasts that long. At his maximum, Sanders is an impact starter with a special brand of two-phase versatility.

Tony Pauline’s Scouting Report for Drew Sanders

Strengths: Alabama transfer coming off a tremendous campaign. Forceful, plays with reckless abandon, and is constantly around the ball making positive plays. Instinctive, quickly diagnoses the action and flows to the action laterally. Immediately locates the ball handler, smoothly gets into space, and drives his shoulders through opponents to bring them down at the point of attack.

Easily gets off blocks, fires to the action, and effectively uses his hands to protect himself. Stays with coverage assignments. Occasionally comes out of a three-point stance, fires off the snap with a quick first step, and plays with proper pad level.

Weaknesses: Slow getting off blocks. Better making plays up the field against the run than in reverse. Doesn’t show flat-out pursuit speed.

Overall: After making minimal impact at Alabama, Sanders really jumped on the radar last season when he totaled 103 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, and 9.5 sacks. He’s a forceful defender who could be used at multiple linebacker positions in a variety of schemes, and Sanders should only get better with more playing experience.

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