After putting together two-straight 12-win seasons, the Dallas Cowboys once again find themselves picking late in the draft order. The first time they’ll be on the clock will be at pick 26. For your run-of-the-mill drafting team, this could present quite a disadvantage, but for Will McClay and company, it just heightens the challenge.
Last year, despite picking 24th overall on Day 1, they ended up with arguably the best offensive lineman in the draft. That’s rather impressive considering six other offensive linemen were selected by the time the Cowboys were on the clock. The Cowboys’ track record for finding a first-round gem speaks for itself. Nine of the team’s last 11 first-round selections have earned All-Pro honors.
Being able to sift out the best players available is a great skill, but the Cowboys' résumé of drafting over the last dozen or so years shows an interesting pattern. Whether by design or happenstance, the Cowboys often find themselves selecting what they believe is the best player at their respective position.
It is important to reiterate that the list of players above are players the Cowboys’ believed were the best at their respective position at the time of the draft. We know Justin Jefferson is the better wide receiver from his draft class, but nobody had him rated higher than the consensus no. 1 WR that year, CeeDee Lamb.
If the Cowboys again follow this pattern, who would be a prime candidate from this year’s draft class? So, far we have identified Florida’s O’Tyrus Torrence as the best guard prospect as well as Texas’ Bijan Robinson who is the consensus top running back in this draft. Today, we’re going to go with another top prospect who might make it to pick 26.
LINEBACKER, DREW SANDERS, ARKANSAS
Drew Sanders is one of the more intriguing players from this draft as his successful transition from an Alabama edge rusher to an Arkansas off-ball linebacker has opened up endless possibilities for this young defender. At 6’5” he is a tall drink of water, only this thirst-quenching beverage tackles everything in sight. Sanders has great length which helps him latch on to ball carriers and wrap them up. He moves very well as his ability to run down his target is top notch.
One of the fun things to watch on tape with Sanders is how he anticipates. He’ll stutter-step his movement and slowly watch how the play is developing before unleashing the fury. He has a good head about him when it comes to making plays and possesses the intangibles to be a star in this league. Sanders’ experience on the edge just adds to his dynamic playmaking ability as he can rush the passer at times.
Why he could slide to 26
The most apparent reason is that off-ball linebackers aren’t selected early in drafts. Last year, the first ones selected were Quay Walker (22nd overall) and Devin Lloyd (27th overall). Another reason is that Sanders only has one year of significant production in college. It’s a little Vander Esch-ish in the sense that he did next to nothing his freshman and sophomore seasons only to light it up his junior year.
Sanders is still a work in progress. His lack of experience at linebacker does show. He needs to process plays a little faster and will need to bulk up if he is to fight off NFL linemen pushing into the second level.
Why this makes sense for Dallas
The Cowboys' most experienced linebacker currently on the roster is Damone Clark who has five career starts after stepping on the field in Week 8 of last season. Both of their starters from last year, Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr, are unrestricted free agents. The team needs to replenish its linebacker group with more talent and continue to strengthen its run-stopping capability.
Additionally, this team likes to take big shots and Sanders is a player who has high upside if he can grow into himself and improve on the field with more experience. The athleticism is there and he has a nose for making plays. Sure, there are linebackers to be found all over this draft and it may not be ideal to use its top resource for an off-ball linebacker, but Sanders has the potential to be a special player.