The first round of the 2023 NFL Draft is rapidly approaching, and the Dallas Cowboys still have a wide range of directions they could go with their 26th overall pick. The Cowboys have stuck to their usual offseason strategy of filling roster needs through free agency in order to draft openly, but spiced it up with uncharacteristic trades for starters Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. While their respective positions of wide receiver and cornerback are still potential needs in the draft, the overall strength of the Cowboys roster has opened up possibilities at defensive tackle, linebacker, and tight end in the first round.
Continuing to build a dominant defense under Dan Quinn should be a priority, and it makes Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders an intriguing name on the team’s pre-draft 30 visit list. The Cowboys took a true off-ball linebacker in the first round in 2018 with Leighton Vander Esch, a success story that earned another contract with the team this offseason. They then added Micah Parsons two years ago and he’s a star, although he spends a lot of time on the defensive line. With Vander Esch, Damone Clark, Jabril Cox, and the do-it-all Micah Parsons, the idea of the Cowboys drafting a linebacker may not make too much sense on paper.
That is until you turn on the tape of Drew Sanders, a transfer from Alabama that broke out with 103 tackles and 9.5 sacks for Arkansas in 2022. Sanders is the type of player with the athleticism to play anywhere in Quinn’s defense, even fitting seamlessly into positions occupied by Jayron Kearse or Donovan Wilson in the ability to track down plays from sideline to sideline.
Arkansas Linebacker Drew Sanders: Strengths
At 6’4” and 235 pounds, Sanders is built more like an edge rusher, but has the slender frame and quick feet to play back at linebacker. Sanders changes directions without any wasted movement, catching blockers off guard when coming downhill by side-stepping or bending the corner. Against his former team in Alabama and first-round QB Bryce Young, Sanders came from depth to chase down Young on a rollout and make a clean open-field tackle.
Sanders’ pass rush upside is what his next team may be banking on to realize his full potential, but this is a player that’s ready to make an immediate impact in coverage or against the run as well. A blur on tape with his speed and length, Sanders fills the hole well against the run and takes the shortest path to the ball against the run, rarely allowing blockers to leverage him. Winning hand battles against bigger offensive linemen may not be a strength of Sanders’, but he makes up for it by getting to the level of the QB with ease in pass rush. Once there, Sanders can disengage and close on the QB quickly.
Lining up primarily at MIKE linebacker for Arkansas, Sanders may not be a prototypical middle linebacker in the NFL due to the physicality needed to take on blockers here, but splitting reps at the position in coverage while lining up elsewhere and playing downhill could make him one of the steals in the early part of this draft.
Arkansas Linebacker Drew Sanders: Weaknesses
Sanders’ best plays against the run come outside the tackles in pursuit, but he can be caught coming in too high against running backs in the hole. With slightly below average arm length, Sanders struggles when blockers can work into his frame and drive against him. Reducing his blocking surface area with flexibility and foot speed is how Sanders stays clean to make plays all over the field, but this speed and awareness aren’t always realized when not playing downhill.
While there’s little doubt Sanders can play in nickel sets at the next level, he sometimes struggles to drop to the proper depth in coverage and allows the ball behind him. Sanders does well to swipe at blockers’ hands when trying to engage, but has a lot of room to grow when it comes to using any counter moves or playing with the power to knock back linemen during a rush.
Arkansas Linebacker Drew Sanders: Summary
Sanders is consistently projected to go in the early to late 20s, where in nearly every draft year teams are starting to dip into second-round grades looking for high upside. Especially this year, in a class without a ton of star power, Sanders could be the best player remaining for a lot of teams prior to the Cowboys coming on the clock at 26.
It may take Dallas being wiped out at one or two other higher priority positions, but with a defensive coordinator that carries a lot of weight in roster building and a track record of turning elite athletes into big-time contributors, Sanders is an interesting name to keep in mind for the Cowboys. The strength of the Cowboys defense is in the trenches with their front four, or in the secondary with a cornerback group led by Trevon Diggs. This isn’t to take away from their second level players that get lost in the shuffle of Quinn’s hybrid scheme though, and adding Sanders here would give them yet another way to stand out.
In the attrition of a long 17-game season, Sanders is the type of player that has all the traits to adjust to the next level quickly and be a serious contributor later in the season, affecting the QB with nearly every rush and more than holding his own against the run.