‘Really Like To Match His Style’: Arkansas LB Drew Sanders Aims To Model Game After Steelers’ T.J. Watt

Standing 6043, 235 pounds, Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders is a pretty unique blend of size, speed and production entering the 2023 NFL Draft.

What he is, exactly, remains the major question though. A former 5-star EDGE at Alabama who eventually transferred to Arkansas for one season as an off-ball linebacker, Sanders has great versatility and production that should have plenty of teams excited about his future in the NFL. There’s that question about what he is at the next level though that needs to be answered.

It might be pretty telling what Sanders sees himself as, just based on who he models his game after.

Speaking with reporters from the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Sanders stated that he models his game after Pittsburgh Steelers’ star pass rusher T.J. Watt, and also mentioned Dallas Cowboys off-ball linebacker Leighton Vander Esch as a guy he likes to watch as well.

A former 5-star pass rusher modeling his game after arguably the best EDGE in the NFL? Not surprising in the least.

“I really enjoyed watching T.J. Watt. I’m kind of a big fan of [Leighton] Vander Esch just because he’s from Idaho and I was from Oregon growing up,” Sanders said. “T.J., I really like watching him rushing the passer. I think he’s really good, obviously, but I really like to kind of match his style, especially when he rushes. I think we’re kind of similar in build and stuff like that.”

Sanders is correct that he and Watt have similar builds. Sanders came in at 6043, 235 pounds with 32 1/8-inch arms and 9 3/4-inch hands at the Combine. Curiously, Sanders didn’t do any testing in Indianapolis, instead opting to just go through on-field position drills.

Watt, coming out of Wisconsin, checked in at 6044, 252 with 33 1/8-inch arms and 11-inch hands. Obviously, Watt was a little heavier due to being a true EDGE and had longer arms and bigger hands. Still, the measureables are close enough.

Add in the No. 42 in college that both wore and the similarities sure are there all over the place.

Despite the similar measurements, movement skills and overall physical traits, it was rather curious to see Sanders go from a 5-star recruit at Alabama with a bright future as an outside linebacker to an off-ball inside linebacker at Arkansas.

While the production was rather impressive in his one season at off-ball linebacker — 103 total tackles, 13.5 of which were for a loss. He also had 9.5 sacks and an interception, three forced fumbles, and five pass deflections — there were certainly some concerns on tape.

Steelers Depot’s Tom Mead wrote the draft profile on Sanders for the site and said he’s the modern day linebacker who just needs some coaching up:

“Sanders is the modern day linebacker. A player that doesn’t have to come off the field in sub-packages. He has the added advantage of being able to rush off the edge as well. He has a high motor and will chase the ball on every play. I’ve seen him make plays 20-25 yards downfield after blitzing on the play.

“He only has one year at the inside linebacker position but he has taken to it well. Coach him up a bit he’ll just get better. He could fit in a one or two gap schemes but if you have defensive lineman that can keep him clean he will make plays all over the field. Put him in on passing downs with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith and you have a formidable trio.

“The inexperience is there but he has shown enough to make me believe he will continue to improve quickly. There is room on his frame to add some weight. He has work to do on using his hands to get off blocks. Man coverage is a question but he should be able to handle it.”

Sanders is certainly an intriguing fit for the Steelers. Add in the fact he tries to model his game after a guy like Watt, and there could be interest there from Pittsburgh, especially with the need for an off-ball linebacker that can run, hit and cover and can stay on the field for all three downs, even adding some juice as a pass rusher.

Maybe he’ll get the chance to play with a guy he studies and tries to emulate his game after in the process.

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