Sanders Can Wreak Havoc on the Inside and Outside | NFL DRAFT '23
By Adam Aniba
Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders was one of the most productive middle linebackers in the nation during the '22 season.
Due to a hamstring injury, the Razorbacks' linebacker was unable to participate in on-field drills and agility testing during the NFL Combine, but impressed scouts during the interview sessions.
It's rare to see a MIKE linebacker prospect with the skill-set to be effective in zone coverage, but also an asset coming off the edge as a pass rusher. Sanders hasn't even come close to hitting his ceiling and should continue to rise up boards during pre-draft evaluation process.
6'4" 235 lbs | LB | ARK
Proj Proj 2nd Rd
Career (17 ALA/ARK Games)- 136 TAK (56 solo), 13,5 TFL, 9.5 SACKS, 3 FF, 1 FR, 7 PD & 1 INT
'22 Stats (12 Games)- 103 TAK (40 solo), 13.5 TFL, 9.5 SACKS, 3 FF, 1 FR, 5 PD & 1 INT
Sanders grew up ub Denton, TX attending Ryan HS and was viewed as one of the most versatile high school prospects in the state. Sanders primarily played outside linebacker, but also was moved around in the defensive backfield and displayed solid coverage ability.
During his junior season, Sanders was selected to play in the Under Armour All-America Game and was named the 2018 Sports Day HS Utility Player of the Year.
As a versatile prospect, Sanders also lined up at TE, QB and RB in subpackages. His ability as a runner was evident, finishing his junior season with 280 yards rushing for 13 touchdowns.
In addition, his OC also used him as a gadget QB at times (8 of 9 for 4 touchdowns), but his play at linebacker attracted national attention in '18. As an outside linebacker/middle linebacker he was ranked as a 4-star prospect by ESPN (36th overall nationally), recording 119 tackles (10 for loss) and eight sacks, in addition to 3 interceptions (2 of which were ret for TDs) .
During his senior season, Sanders continued to play two-way football, throwing for 5 touchdowns on only 8 attempts and rushed for 326 yards, which resulted in 10 touchdowns. He had his best year as a flex-tight end, registering 34 receptions for 717 yards and 12 scores.
Sanders was finalist for the 2019 Landry Player of the Year Award (the top HS football player in North Texas) and was rated a 5-star prospect with offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oregon and Penn State. Sanders ultimately committed to play for Nick Saban and the Tide.
Asa freshman in '20, Sanders played in all 12 games and was a special teams standout, in addition to seeing a few rotational snaps at outside linebacker.
After zero starts in '20, Sanders would start in 3 out of the 12 games in '21, registering 12 tackles, 2.5 tackle for a loss, 1 sack and 2 passes defended.
Following his sophomore season in '21, Sanders elected to transfer to Arkansas for the '22 season with the chance to start at linebacker for the Razorbacks.
Sanders started all 12 games for Arkansas in '22, finishing second in the SEC and 15th nationally with 9.5 sacks (most for Razorback since '12 and the 7th-most in a single season in team history). Sanders led the team with 103 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks.
'22 Awards & Accolades
1st-Team All-America honors by AP (last Razorback Ronnie Caveness in '64)
1st-Team All-SEC by the AP
1st-Team All-SEC by Coaches
1st-Team All-SEC by Pro Football Focus
1st-Team All-SEC by USA Today
Butkus Award Finalists (first finalist in program historyy
Sanders attracted the attention of NFL's scouts with his performance vs S. Carolina (9/10/12), recording 11 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles to earn Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week, Bednarik Player of the Week and SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
NFL analyst Lance Zierlein had the following to say about Sanders after the '22 season.
"He’s a tough out for interior protection as a blitzing linebacker and has natural rush talent to hunt quarterbacks off the edge. Sanders’ athletic gifts, versatility and toughness could help him become a highly impactful playmaker with Pro Bowl upside."
Quick twitch athlete that's fluid when asked to drop into zone coverage
DIsplays the ability to blitz off the edge, effectively utilizing his length and quickness
Combination of length, speed & athleticism allow defensive coordinators the freedom to move him around and utilize him as a 3-down linebacker
Solid tackler and instincts rarely fooled by misdirection plays/outside zone runs
Displays impressive field vision & ability to disrupt plays in the backfield
Overall collegiate production limited (most of production in '22)
Although checks weight/height boxes, slender build (especially lower body) only a slight concern
Lack of counter moves will limit his immediate impact on the next level as a pass rusher
Can struggle to mirror tight ends and will need refinement when playing man coverage
Although has adequate overall size for the position, will need to work on functional strength, while adding mass to his frame
Sanders had limited starting reps prior to the '22 season, so he's still developing as a 3-down linebacker. In saying that, the former Razorback linebacker demonstrated his value in coverage, but also as a pass rusher last season. His 13.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks demonstrate how much of an asset he can be when deployed on stunts/blitzes.
The Razorbacks' linebacker has everything a team is looking for in a starting MIKE linebacker. As Sanders continues to learn the nuances of being a signal caller for the defense, he'll deal with growing pains, but nonetheless has a Pro Bowl ceiling on the next level.
*Games Watched- 9/10/22 vs S.CAR, 9/17 vs MIZZ ST., 10/1 vs ALA, 10/8 vs MISS ST., 10/29 vs AUB, 11/5 vs LIB, 11/2 vs LSU & 11/19 vs OLE MISS
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