The Post-Corner: A Drew Sanders Breakdown

What’s up football fans, it’s been a while. With my calendar opening up now that the high school football season is over, I’ve decided to write this semi-weekly column, “The Post-Corner”. For my first article back, I wanted to do a quick write up on an SEC linebacker. I ended up with 2000 words on Drew Sanders, a 6’5”, 230 pound off-ball linebacker from Arkansas. Let’s just say it feels good to be back. If you want a rundown of his personal info and stuff, just go look him up on Google. This article is long enough so let’s talk about football, not his family tree.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this breakdown, I am going to get something off my chest. Linebackers are hard to scout. You usually have no idea what their responsibility is on any given play. You can understand the big picture of what a linebacker is supposed to do, but unless you are in that meeting room listening to the position coach, you won’t know the finer details of the player’s job. There are plenty of times when a linebacker will fill his gap only for the run to go for 30 yards just because the nose tackle ended up in the same gap as him. But you won’t fully understand what went wrong unless you know the call and specific techniques those players were doing. You’ll see me guess what the key is (I usually assume it’s OG to RB Path) or how the fit is supposed to work, but oftentimes I’m guessing on cues and techniques that I see during a play.


Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about Drew Sanders. We are going to break this down into a couple categories that I think are important: Athleticism/Agility, Block Destruction, Tackling, Coverage, Assignment/Instincts, and an X-Factor.

Athleticism/Agility

Drew Sanders is a good athlete, but not a great one. He has some moments in the open field where he flies around and makes a great tackle in open space. In the box, you see his athleticism in how he can evade and slip blocks in tight spaces with fluid hips and quick feet.

In the open field is where you see some real signs of his athleticism. Sanders flashes good straight-line speed and short area quickness, great traits for a linebacker who will probably be mostly a weak-side backer and play in space. In the clip below, you can see Sanders recognize the play and show some good burst to track and knock the ball loose.

While I don’t think Sanders will test out of the gym at any of the pre-draft events, I think his numbers will be good enough in the 40 and lateral change of direction drills to turn some heads. The drills to keep an eye on will be his vertical and broad jump. Can he improve the explosiveness in his hips, which will allow him to be more forceful at the point of attack?

Block Destruction

This section may be a little longer than the others, but that is just because I think it’s an important part of linebacker play. Especially as an off-ball linebacker, you have to be able to take on and defeat blocks consistently to be any good at the NFL level. That’s where I really struggle to see Drew Sanders transitioning well at the NFL level.

To start, he lacks in the technical areas of shedding blocks. Too often he allows offensive lineman into his chest because he doesn’t step with the near foot and strike, exploding with his hips into contact and pressing with his hands to create separation. When he doesn’t do this, it creates situations such as the clip below, where he’s in the right spot and messes up the run but can’t finish the play because he doesn’t strike and shed the block.

This next clip shows more of the technical areas where he struggles. The hand placement is high and on the shoulder pads when it should probably be inside on the chest plate. This allows for more control of the opposing player. He also doesn’t roll his hips into contact to create more power with his hands. 

He can flash the power in his hands and hips to separate from blocks, but it’s too inconsistent and often happens when scraping over the top. One of his best tools in block destruction is his short area quickness, which he uses to slip and avoid blocks like in the clip below. The problem with having this as your primary tool when working in the box is that it can place you in the wrong gap and create creases that talented running backs will hit for big gains (watch the Ole Miss game for examples).

Drew Sanders works well in open space and his athleticism allows him to slip and avoid blocks pretty well, which allowed him to take chances in college that sometimes worked. But unless he figures out the technique and intent to take on blocks more physically in the box, I don’t foresee a smooth transition in the NFL.

Tackling

Sanders is a solid tackler who can struggle with tracking and finishing a tackle with a blocker on him. He has the tools to be a very good tackler in open space, and showcases those tools at times, like on this play against Alabama where he does a fantastic job of closing space to the near hip and keeping his inside-out leverage.

However, he’s not consistent in tracking the near hip and often over pursues ball carriers, allowing them angles to cut back underneath him and into open space. It’s a simple fix in technique and eye discipline but could really create issues at the next level if not corrected.

Sanders tackles by catching more often than striking, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Oftentimes in the box, you are not in a good position to strike. The play below is an example. Sanders gets off a block and ends up in a position to make a tackle, but it is a poor position to strike from. But too often it seems like he lacks the intent or explosion to strike and finish tackles when he is in a position to do so. He will get in a good spot due to his athleticism and solid footwork, but won’t finish tackles or contact, often letting ball carriers slip through his grasp.

The limited explosiveness and grip strength also hurts him when attempting tackles with blockers still on him. This is a tough tackle to make, but one that off-ball linebackers have to be able to make at a consistent level. In the games I watched, Sanders rarely made the tackles necessary when he had an offensive lineman’s hands on him.

When watching Sanders and seeing his tackle numbers, I was hoping to see a much more sound tackler then I did. While I don’t think he’s a bad tackler, I just don’t see a player who is going to be able to consistently tackle the higher caliber athletes that are in the NFL unless he fixes some of the issues that I wrote about.

Coverage

This section will be short and sweet. He’s a good enough athlete to do just fine in coverage, even at the NFL level. His eyes in zone coverages were good, not great. He sometimes got flat-footed and let things happen around him too much, which could hurt him in the NFL since there is a lot less spot-drop zone then I think he ran at Arkansas. But even then, in some of those zone coverage reps his flat feet hurt him a bit. This is something coaching can fix, and with time Sanders could become a good zone defender.

My biggest coverage question is how Sanders plays in man coverage. Arkansas rarely asked him to play anyone man-to-man and any talk about how he plays there is pure projection. He’s athletic enough to do so, but I have questions about his ability to judge angles and attack a man just based on how he works in space. 

Overall, I’d consider Sanders a good enough athlete to adjust to coverage in the NFL. I just honestly cannot tell you if his eyes and ability to judge angles are good enough because he simply hasn’t been asked to do it enough in the games I watched.

Eyes/Instincts/Assignment

I didn’t really know what to call this section,but I’ll basically be talking about how well he does his job within a defensive structure. A linebacker is responsible for a lot on a defense and has to impact both run and pass consistently, so it’s important that he does his job consistently. In coverage, Sanders doesn’t freelance and that’s a good thing. I can’t speak on how well he communicates in coverage, but he passes off routes well and seems to know for the most part what he’s doing besides the occasional rep of him not knowing where the sticks are. I think he can work on how he gets in his drops, but that is a coaching thing.

As a run defender, Sanders does a good job for the most part assignment-wise. He doesn’t get fooled often by misdirection and sticks to his keys from what I can tell. When it comes to fitting up the run, I did notice his tendency to slip blocks would get him into trouble from time to time and I could see that happening more at the NFL level. In the box, there are occasions where you don’t have time to slip a block and reset your feet to make the tackle.

Overall, it seems like Sanders knows his job and does it consistently. I can’t tell you much more because I do not know Arkansas’s scheme very well.

X-Factor

This is the place where I’ll talk about things that I think can make a player unique or interesting. For Sanders, it’s his ability to blitz and rush the passer. Arkansas loved to line him up all over and blitz him from a variety of spots in the box. It was actually really fun to see how the Razorbacks moved Sanders around early in the season. I wouldn’t call Sanders a polished pass-rusher by any means, but he is quick and athletic enough to give guards and tackles trouble with speed. He even has some fun flashes of bend and flexibility turning the corner that if refined, could become a good tool for him. Working on his hands and teaching him a simple pass-rush plan would help him with blitzing a lot, but he does have some natural ability in this department.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Sanders is a good college player who I think will struggle to earn consistent playing time in the NFL. His problems with tackling and block destruction are going to overshadow some of the fun traits he has in space. If he can become more explosive in his hips and hands on the field, he has the tools to be a quality starter. But that is a big if.

If I were to give him a career arc, I’d say that Sanders starts his career as a special teams’ guy who sticks around at the edge of rosters for two years before finally getting more opportunities if he starts being more explosive at the point of contact. 

After watching five games of Drew Sanders, I’d value him as a 4th or 5th round pick and special teams’ guy to start his career. It just doesn’t make sense to draft a guy who was mediocre on tape at one of the most critical parts of playing linebacker (the contact part) any higher. His testing numbers could raise his draft stock, but plenty of athletic linebackers who can’t deal with blocks consistently have fizzled out quickly in the NFL.

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