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What is Drew Sanders' path to playing time as a rookie?

Henry Chisholm Avatar
July 20, 2023

Ask our friends over at bet365, and they’ll tell you that Drew Sanders has the 13th-best odds of being the Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL in 2023. That’s an impressive standing for a third-round pick and even more impressive considering that Sanders isn’t in line for a starting job.

Sanders, a 22-year-old linebacker from Arkansas, was the 67th pick in the draft, but most outlets listed him as a fringe first-round draft pick in the pre-draft process. He’s a freaky athlete, a term that gets thrown around more often than it should, but Sanders deserves that title. He’s 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds. He ran a 4.56 40-yard dash. He was a five-star recruit out of high school. He wasn’t allowed to participate in high school practices because his coaches worried he would injure his teammates.

Last season, he was a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker. He finished fifth in the SEC with 103 tackles, fourth with 14 tackles for loss and second with 9.5 sacks. He was a first-team All-American.

So why wouldn’t he be a prominent part of the Week 1 Broncos defense?

The big reason is simple: He’s very raw.

Sanders hardly played at Alabama, where he spent the first two seasons of his career. His one season at Arkansas was electric, but he hasn’t spent much time on the field, and it shows.

Sanders wore a number of different hats for the Razorbacks, but regardless of where he lined up, his job was generally simple: run to the ball and tackle the ball carrier. He was a pure run-and-chase linebacker who made plays from the middle of the field and lined up on the edge. The plan, obviously, worked. Sanders was one of the country’s best defenders, partly because of simple responsibilities that let his athleticism shine through.

But Sanders tends to overcommit to misdirection runs and play-action. He can miss his run fits. He misses a few too many tackles. His technique in coverage needs polishing, but he should eventually be a solid coverage linebacker at worst, thanks to his athleticism.

These flaws can be fixed, but they will probably take time. Sanders is a mound of clay that the Broncos need to mold into an NFL linebacker, and he has the tools to be one of the best in the league if the Broncos do a good job. Having Greg Manusky, who has 12 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator, as linebackers coach gives them a great shot.

Sanders could fit into a game plan for the Broncos’ defense in four different positions. How he develops to fit into those roles is no more important than who he will be competing with for snaps in those roles.

Inside Linebacker

Eventually, the plan is for Sanders to take over a starting inside linebacker job in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for Sanders, he’s unlikely to take over one of those jobs this season.

The Broncos have Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton back manning the middle for a second season. Singleton just picked up a three-year extension, but Jewell is playing in the final year of his deal.

Sanders’ inexperience will show up more in the true inside linebacker role than any other. He’ll need to grow in his ability to fit runs. He may need to pack on a little more muscle. He’ll need to process the game faster than he has in the past.

To steal reps from either of the veteran starters, Sanders will probably need to prove himself in a different role first, and convince the coaches that his playmaking upside is worth the growing pains. Overtaking either starter will be very difficult. Sanders is more likely to compete with Jonas Griffith and Justin Strnad to be the next man up in case of injury than to compete with either Singleton or Jewell for snaps in the base 3-4 defense.

Sub Package Linebacker

Sanders’ athleticism gives him a leg up on Jewell and Singleton in the Broncos’ nickel and dime defenses, though unseating either will be difficult.

Sanders was at his best at Arkansas when he lined up in the middle of the field on passing downs and spied the quarterback. He read quarterbacks’ eyes and lept to tip touch passes at the second level or rushed downhill when the quarterback broke the pocket.

Here are a couple of examples:

Sanders’ ability to float in the middle of the field and make plays should translate easily to the NFL. Very little processing is required so that he can play fast. Against quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, having Sanders roaming the middle of the field and serving as a spy could prove valuable. Singleton was exceptional in a similar role last year, but Sanders has a touch more range, and I’d expect Sanders to take over the role in clear passing situations.

When the Broncos play their nickel defense in more neutral situations, keeping Jewell and Singleton both on the field is probably a relatively easy decision, at least at the beginning of the year. They don’t provide exceptional pass coverage—for what it’s worth, Sanders probably isn’t any better at this point—but they can handle the run game, leaving the five defensive backs on the field to do the heavy lifting in the passing game.

If Sanders’ sub-package role expands throughout the season, it will be worth keeping an eye on whether Singleton or Jewell is losing snaps.

Edge Rusher

Posting 9.5 sacks in a single season in the SEC is no easy feat, so it should be no surprise that Sanders could factor in as an edge rusher.

Sean Payton told the media that Sanders would be an inside linebacker for the Broncos, but they also have him tagged as a potential rush player, which means he could be used on the edge in pure passing situations. Singleton occasionally played on the edge in similar situations last season after injuries struck the Broncos’ outside linebackers.

Sanders has substantial upside as a pass rusher from the edge of the defense, but where exactly he would stack up against the Broncos’ edge rushers is tough to tell. Randy Gregory and Frank Clark are the top two. Baron Browning isn’t too far behind them. Sanders could be a better edge-rushing option than Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper and the other outside linebackers, but he’ll have to prove himself during training camp and the preseason.

With Browning recovering from a torn meniscus and Gregory’s inability to stay healthy, plenty of snaps on the edge could come open. Sanders will be in line, but it’s up to him how far down the line he’ll start the season.

Auxiliary Rusher

When the Broncos stocked up on edge rushers during Wade Phillips’ tenure as defensive coordinator, they used “NASCAR packages” to get them all on the field in pure passing situations. As a Phillips disciple, don’t be surprised if new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph does the same.

On a 3rd & 12, when Joseph wants to send extra rushers, Sanders will be part of the equation. Gregory and Clark will probably man the edges. Zach Allen will probably take a spot in the interior. DJ Jones would be a favorite for another. Singleton was great as an interior blitzer last season, and he could be up next on the priority list. Sanders, Jewell, and a few other edge rushers would probably also have a case to be included.

In pure passing situations, Sanders probably has a spot on the field. He could be spying the quarterback. He could be part of a blitz package. He could be rushing the edge, although that’s less likely.

Working his way into the defense in neutral situations will be more difficult since that will almost always mean one of Singleton and Jewell will have to head to the sideline, and both are proven options who won’t blow an assignment and give up a big gain.

In running situations or against heavy personnel, Sanders will have the most difficult time seeing the field since that’s where Singleton and Jewell would be playing to their strengths.

Eventually, and maybe as soon as next season, if the Broncos don’t renew Jewell’s contract, Sanders will step into a full-time role. Until then, playing more than about 20% of the team’s defensive snaps seems unlikely unless he proves in a limited role that the Broncos can’t afford to keep him off the field, or injuries strike the inside linebackers or pass rushers.

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