The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into the 2023 offseason. With free agency as the next big event to shape next season’s roster, it will be followed by the NFL draft in April. The Steelers will have a number of decisions with players who were on the 2022 roster and will have the opportunity to add some free agent acquisitions before making their first draft selection. The NFL combine and player pro days will also shape the team’s big boards before the draft.
When talking about mock drafts or NFL free agency, you have to first identify the team’s main needs for the offseason. Before any gains or losses in free agency, there are some who would like to see the Steelers go with either offensive line or defensive line with their first-round pick. Others feel inside linebacker or cornerback could be on top of the list. With plenty of chances for the Steelers to shape their roster prior to April, their goal is usually to get into position to draft the best player available rather than target a specific position. When it comes to what position the team will select with their first pick, it is certainly up for debate.
In one of the latest mock drafts by Pro Football Network, they have the Steelers addressing the inside linebacker position before anything else. Even though it appears to be a high-need position at this time for the Steelers, whether or not an inside linebacker is worthy of the 17th pick is the real question. Since the Steelers could go in any number of directions with their first selection, it is important to look at all the possibilities presented by various mock draft outlets.
Check out the Steelers 17th pick:
17. Pittsburgh Steelers | Drew Sanders | ILB | Arkansas | Jr. |
Being early in the draft process, there may be some players most fans are not familiar with. If this is the case, here is a breakdown of Sanders according to thedraftnetwork.com:
Drew Sanders NFL Draft Scouting Report
Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders projects as a viable three-down linebacker at the NFL level. Sanders’ fluidity for his size is surprising and allows him to play a dynamic brand of football that will allow him to cover depth in the middle of the field and defend laterally against horizontal speed as well.
Originally a 5-star recruit, Sanders committed to the Alabama Crimson Tide as an EDGE defender after an illustrious high school career at Ryan High School in Denton, TX. Sanders was a multi-position athlete at Ryan, credited with snaps at QB, TE, WR, and multiple spots on defense. He settled into a special teams and rotational role for the Tide as a freshman in 2020 and was given an opportunity to start on the edge in 2021 for several games before an injury limited his play down the stretch. He then transferred to Arkansas, where he converted from an EDGE to an off-ball linebacker.
Sanders exhibits a number of desirable qualities for playing linebacker in the NFL. The first thing that stands out is his fluidity at his stature, which pops when he’s looking to fill and fit gaps in the run game or when he’s opening to gain depth and take away throwing windows in the middle of the field. Sanders can be walked up on the line of scrimmage or alternatively be stacked behind linemen and there’s little cause for doubt that he’ll hit landmarks against either outside run or zone coverage. That, paired with his length, gives him a notable area of influence and allows him to make a significant number of plays.
His initial read step and conversion to pursuit offer potent explosiveness and give him pace to beat blockers in space to the football. And that first step shows up in passing situations as well, as his prior experience at Alabama has bred him to gain ground and threaten vertically off the edge. And yet, there’s also a trust in his athleticism that is rare beyond his experience at the position. Sanders is willing to slow play reps and ensure he’s dialed in on the action of the play before triggering and will still greet ball carriers at an effective pace. As a tackler, Sanders is explosive and offers potent hitting power when he catches ball carriers at a flush set of pads. He also has the length and reach to extend and play outside of his tackle radius, as well.
And yet, amid the strong play, there’s still room to grow. Sanders is a bit angular and undersized if he were to live on the edge and his size as an interior stack linebacker could present leverage challenges to stay under blockers who climb up into his lap. Sanders will need to prove himself as an athlete with a frame and sustained athleticism with some more density to offer a more vast menu of options to NFL teams. His processing on run plays can continue to expedite as well—this weakness is understandable given his lack of playing time off the ball at the SEC level beyond 2022. And finally, as a fit player in the box, you’re hoping to see more separation and block deconstruction in high-traffic areas in order to see him uncover and make more tackles off of contact.
Expectations for Sanders should be tempered early given his lack of playing experience on the second level but the athleticism is highly enticing and paints the picture of a talent who could be a staple on the depth chart for years to come. Successful defenses have dynamic athletes to cover the middle of the field—that’s what Sanders can be as he continues to grow in this role and becomes a more well-rounded player against the run.
Top Reasons to Buy In:
Tremendous ceiling after 2022 transition to off-ball linebacker
Length and fluidity are a rare combination of athletic traits
Excellent third-down value as a pass rusher
Room to add mass to his frame
Top Reasons For Concern:
Needs to develop as a run defender in the box
Functional strength at the point of attack is a work in progress
Man-to-man coverage skills are TBD
For all you who are preparing yourself for the draft, what do you think of the selection? Would you be on board with the Steelers taking Saners with their first pick? Or do you feel there is a better player at this position, a different one who may still be available, or that Sanders will not make it to the 17th pick? Personally, I could see the Steelers addressing the inside linebacker position in free agency which would move it down their list of needs. Ideally the Steelers take care of all their needs in free agency to open up their draft possibilities. But as for Sanders, right now he seems to be a bit of a stretch at 17 but could be a decent option at 32. Additionally, as will be the case with a lot of these prospects, how they perform at the NF Scouting Combine will determine if they ascend or descend in their projected draft position. But as it stands now, I hope the Steelers have a better option available when they go in the clock at pick 17.