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Buffalo Rumblings selects LB Drew Sanders at No. 27, eyeing evolution of Bills’ defensive scheme

With so many polarizing prospects, we take a chance on immense potential where need is greatest

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Missouri State at Arkansas Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The SB Nation 2023 NFL mock draft is well underway, and the Buffalo Bills are finally on the clock at pick No. 27 after an arduous wait.

If you haven’t been following along to this point, be sure to check out the SB Nation NFL community mock draft tracker where you’ll find a brief summary of each selection and links to write-ups at every SB Nation NFL team site about each decision made.

For this exercise, I asked the mighty Bruce Nolan to weigh in with his thoughts on this selection. I predict there’ll be some spicy debate in the comments given the contrasting nature of Bruce and my perception of the podium call.

Enduring the wait until pick 27 gave ample time to think about strategy — which, of course, is dependent on the way the draft board plays out. While the Bills’ needs may feel plentiful, the reality is that very few rookies have a chance to come in and start immediately for Buffalo without unseating an established veteran. (Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds comes to mind having bucked that trend.) That speaks volumes about drafting for need this year, especially when the perception is that general manager Brandon Beane and his team must hit it out of the park at the end of the month. Following a slew of fairly underwhelming draft classes now tied to their resume, it’s imperative that One Bills Drive find high-quality starters at positions in need of an upgrade.

With that in mind, the focus skewed heavily toward wide receivers, offensive tackles, and linebackers. That meant looking past a lot of great available players such as tight ends Dalton Kincaid (Utah), Darnell Washington (Georgia), and Luke Musgrave (Oregon State); as well edge rushers BJ Ojulari (LSU) and Lucas Van Ness (Iowa). Trust me, I understand the need for a continuous pipeline of talented defensive ends/edge rushers, but I didn’t feel comfortable picking those players available. No. 27 was a tough spot in this mock draft.

Let’s be honest. Perhaps no bigger need exists on Buffalo’s roster than finding the heir apparent to Tremaine Edmunds. While the team certainly needs more bona fide talent at wide receiver and could stand to find a better option at right tackle, the opportunity to pick from every available linebacker was too tempting. Key linebacker position lacking a true starter? The draft’s linebacker cupboard fully stacked?

I didn’t feel the offensive tackle options were proper fits for what the team needs to upgrade most there (pass protection), and the wide receivers all trend identical to me: small, fast, largely relegated to the slot. There was a strong desire to draft Darnell Washington or wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, but I felt there were other players similar enough to consider in Round 2 who should be available. (Okay, fair. Maybe no one else is similar to Washington.) I didn’t envy the options at linebacker if passing the position by in Round 1. Additionally, I believe One Bills Drive is up to some shenanigans not bringing in any linebackers for a top-30 visit. It’s worth noting that the team’s brass met with linebackers Byron Young, Nolan Smith, Trenton Simpson, and Sanders at the NFL Scouting Combine. After that point, they’ve seemed intent on burying that information. To me, that’s a red herring signaling linebacker is a huge priority if things go as planned the first night.

With the 27th pick in the SB Nation 2023 mock draft, the Buffalo Bills select...

Drew Sanders, LB (Arkansas)

Matt’s take

At 6’4 and 235 pounds, with 32 1/8” arms and 9 3/4” hands, Drew Sanders has the requisite size to play the integral role of a three-down MIKE linebacker in the NFL. He’s an elite playmaker who began his college career with Alabama as an edge rusher for the Crimson Tide. Sanders eventually transferred to Arkansas for the 2022 season to play inside linebacker — and he found immediate success as an off-ball playmaker.

That lone season with the Razorbacks Sanders made 103 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, one interception, five passes defended, and three forced fumbles. For his efforts in 2022, Sanders was named an unanimous All-American and received First-Team All-SEC honors by the Associated Press, Coaches, Pro Football Focus, and USA Today.

Finding a prospect who doesn’t have deficiencies is nigh impossible, and that includes Drew Sanders. Of largest concern may be his lack of experience, having transitioned to inside linebacker for just one full season of play. Right behind it is his size, but any perception of him being underweight or such is almost universally followed by sound praise for his explosive ability as an edge rusher. Yes, he will need to improve his run fits to better seal gaps against running backs. He needs to find better consistency as a tackler, as well. But with time and experience, and solid NFL coaching, Sanders should improve quickly having already shown ability in just 12 games off the ball.

Sanders will benefit from an NFL training program, which will help him add muscle mass to his frame. But he must take care not to disrupt his already-explosive ability as a somewhat undersized though highly physical pass rusher. He may possess one of the highest ceilings in this year’s draft, with the potential to blossom into the complete package as a still-ascending second-level defender — an uber-talented and versatile MIKE with a truly special talent to pressure the quarterback as a blitzing linebacker for years to come in multiple schemes.

Sanders’ relative athletic score (RAS) is 8.97 as a LB, placing him 275 out of 2,648 linebackers since 1987. Unable to participate in the NFL combine, Sanders posted a 4.59-second 40-yard dash, 4.38-second 20-yard shuttle, 37” vertical, and 9’10” broad jump at Arkansas’ pro day.

With Drew Sanders, all you need to do is trust the tape.

I made the final call on drafting Sanders, and I feel very good having done it — even if it meant ignoring offense in the first round. Some will argue it’s much too soon to draft Sanders, or any linebacker, but I prefer the risk of adding him than the risk of an ill-suited option later. The bonus with Sanders is his versatility — with real potential to play inside linebacker or outside as a pass rusher, something Edmunds wasn’t tasked with doing in five years with the Bills.

Adding an incredibly gifted prospect at linebacker who’s still ascending, with the knowledge that the Bills have a fifth-year option — it felt like the best move. I would bet the team felt very similar when they drafted Edmunds. I found it criminal passing up the position — one of massive importance in Buffalo’s defense — just because it’s no longer en vogue to draft a linebacker in Round 1 due to misaligned value and disinterest. Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson do not instill confidence that the team has an in-house solution at MIKE.

It’s quite possible there’s a paradigm shift with head coach Sean McDermott calling defensive plays this coming season. McDermott may find reason to field more than two linebackers among his tesseract of a defensive scheme on occasion. If so, then Sanders will bring a much-needed ability to rush the passer instead of just sitting back and reacting to throws and clogging run lanes. Though Bruce rightly points out below why such a shift could take some of the best defensive talent off the field. In spurts, It’s a conversation for another day, should this situation become reality. I believe in spurts, it would add just enough of a wrinkle to a defense that feels like it needs a couple new ones.

Overall, Sanders is a prospect with tremendous upside and he’s an ideal fit as a replacement for Edmunds’ MIKE role. His ability to play on-ball and off-ball linebacker affords the Bills an opportunity to feature a special defender for seasons to come, and the ability to keep the team’s linebacker strength intact and oft-feared by opposing offenses.

Bruce’s take

Drew Sanders is a polarizing prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft because he’s still new to playing off-ball linebacker. The traits are clearly present as evidenced by the RAS score Matt posted above. The transition from edge rusher at Alabama to inside linebacker at Arkansas didn’t diminish the playmaking ability Sanders had previously shown, and it’d be foolhardy not mentioning that teams have seen a great athlete recently play a hybrid off-ball/edge rusher role in Dallas. While Micah Parsons and Drew Sanders have differing traits (with Sanders being taller, longer, and leaner and Parsons being shorter, thicker and faster), it’s the role rather than the athlete that might encourage a team to carve out an opportunity on defense where both his Crimson Tide and Razorback experiences can be utilized.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane recently said that you don’t chase a skill set in an attempt to mirror that of former middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. While it’s true, from an athletic standpoint, Sanders is “Diet Tremaine” in terms of size, length, and speed. With the added pass rush upside he gives you, the Bills’ penchant to take a swing on a traits-based evaluation for an ascending player remains intact with the Sanders pick.

I mentioned previously that the idea of letting Tremaine Edmunds walk in free agency to then turn around and take a linebacker at 27 feels like suboptimal team building though, and that stands true here as well. The Bills saved the money they would have paid Tremaine Edmunds, but missed out on the ability to take another player at 27 that could have helped the team take a step forward rather than hoping the player they took minimizes their free-agent loss.

The diminishment of off-ball linebacker value in the NFL isn’t at the same level to that of running backs, but the reason they so infrequently get taken in Round 1 relative to other positions isn’t due to lack of ability at the college level. Teams simply don’t value the position, and if you’re going to zig when the rest of the NFL is zagging (combined with the pick usage to replace the Pro Bowl player who left in free agency), you had better hit. Sanders’ inexperience at the position makes that possibility slimmer.

If you’re using Sanders as both an off-ball linebacker and an edge rusher, you’re putting a lot on a rookie player unless you’re running a lot more 4-3 base defense and starting Sanders in a role that isn’t full time, in which case you’re taking one of your best players (nickel cornerback Taron Johnson) off the field in favor of more snaps for A.J. Klein, Terrel Bernard or Tyrel Dodson. If you’re using Sanders as only an off-ball linebacker, you might be missing out on a dynamic that can set him apart from other prospects and make the first-round investment more palatable.

Ultimately, it’s a risky pick that feels like it falls into the “boom or bust” category. The board didn’t fall for the Bills in a way that would make a clearly obvious alternative jump out, but it’s likely that I would have preferred an edge rusher like Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness (a one-trick bull-rushing pony with the strength of an ox) or his complete opposite, LSU’s BJ Ojulari (a long and bendy player lacking power, to be mentored by Von Miller). Interior defensive linemen like Michigan’s Mazi Smith (a freak athlete still working on hand usage and his get-off) or Clemson’s Bryan Bresee (a size/speed player who may have gone in the top 10 if not for injuries) would have been under consideration for me in this spot as well.

Be sure to check out SB Nation’s full Round 1 NFL Mock Draft, and stay tuned for our Round 2 pick in the coming week!

For what it’s worth, the good folks at DraftKings Sportsbook project linebacker as the most likely position the Bills will address at No. 27 with +200 odds. The next most likely option, according to the oddsmakers, is defensive lineman or EDGE with +300 odds.