Will Anderson Jr. should be the first defender taken in the 2023 NFL Draft, as the Alabama edge rusher has the tools and production to back up his potential top-five status.
Although the top quarterbacks will headline this year’s NFL Draft, teams should not pass on the uber-talented “Terminator” — aka Will Anderson Jr.
At the NFL Draft Scouting Combine, Anderson ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and had a 1.61-second 10-yard split, as he ran at a bulked-up weight. At Alabama, he was mostly playing in the 243-pound mark or even lighter during his collegiate seasons. Compared to the official college listing for Anderson, he weighed 10 pounds heavier and half an inch shorter, standing 6-foot-3 1/2″ at the Combine instead.
The 21-year-old doesn’t have the testing results that jump off the page as a freaky elite athlete that warrants potential top-five status. However, Anderson’s production does and the Alabama edge rusher is plenty athletic enough to continue to be a force for opposing offenses to try to handle.
The Junior did it for three consecutive seasons in the toughest conference in the SEC, even jumping in as a freshman in Nick Saban’s defense and making his name known in all of college football. Even this past year, ten sacks are nothing to scoff at or ignore, as he was still an impact player for the Crimson Tide defense.
If he can play at that new 250+ pound weight and still be just as explosive, Anderson doesn’t have notable size concerns, and at this new weight, he has the prototypical frame for an NFL outside linebacker. Bearing long 33 7/8’’ arms, the two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Unanimous All-American, first-team All-SEC, and Nagurski Trophy winner made an impact consistently in opposing backfields, especially in 2021.
Will Anderson Jr. Should Be First Defensive Player Taken in 2023 NFL Draft
Coming in fifth in Heisman voting that year (2021) with 17 sacks, the Alabama edge rusher had a lot to live up to in 2022. He still achieved a few more accolades the following year, like the Lombardi Trophy, Lott Trophy, and the Chuck Bednarick Award. But the thing that stands out even more than the sack production (34.5 in three seasons) is the tackles for loss, as he had 31 in 2021 and 58.5 total in his collegiate career.
Not only is Anderson a guy that can get after the quarterback at an elite level, but he is also a solid run defender, as his burst to get into the backfield shows up time and time again. While bigger and stronger offensive linemen can give him a tough time, teams repeatedly had to throw or run away from him and gameplan a scheme to get the ball out quicker than normal. He is lacking maybe one or two athletic traits that could help him get by, like some of the top pass rushers that have been taken in the top five in previous NFL Draft cycles.
His speed to power and wicked burst are solid, but his hand technique and counter-move will have to develop a bit more at the next level, although it is above average already in many categories. His football acumen and awareness of controlling gap integrity are superb, as he uses his short-area quickness to disengage and attacks through the trenches. If anything else, his college playing size concerns are tied to his inconsistent play strength at times.
While Anderson can bend, it isn’t his best trait, as he lacks some flexibility off the edge. He is more of a bull rusher first and fits the profile as more of a top-tier blitzer sometimes as opposed to a traditional rusher, as the Alabama disruptor relies on his speed to power and elite get-off to get after the quarterback or ball carrier more than anything else. The Alabama edge defender has the relentless motor teams would want, but he does miss or fail to wrap up ball carriers somewhat more than one would think with this extensive profile as a high-caliber player.
Finding weaknesses in his game could be considered nitpicking, as NFL teams wouldn’t have him drop back as much or take on double teams as much as he did for Alabama.
The Crimson Tide did not use him as a pure rusher of the edge as a traditional 3-4 OLB all the time, as they consistently had him rushing in multiple positions that didn’t showcase his best skillset. From pass rushing from the interior to playing defensive end in 3-4 and 4-3 looks, it is surprising to say Anderson could’ve been more productive in college. He was likely the best player for the role Alabama needed in their defense and was versatile in the way he was used, making him valuable in that way in his experience although it isn’t what he is known for.
In terms of comparisons, according to Mockdraftable, Anderson physically is very comparable to Kayvon Thibodeaux (6-foot-4, 254 pounds with 33 1/8’’ arms) coming out of Oregon last year, who was selected by the New York Giants with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But the Alabama edge rusher has a way better overall profile, in terms of sack production and as a run defender than Thibodeaux did coming out.
Teams like the Houston Texans (2), Arizona Cardinals (3), and Seattle Seahawks (5) should be his top landing spots, as I can’t see him getting passed up in the top five in this draft. Even in a worst-case scenario, a team like the Philadelphia Eagles (10) should not be allowed to even have the chance to pick him, over the Chicago Bears (9), Atlanta Falcons (8), and Las Vegas Raiders (7).
They all need impact edge rushers and even with quarterbacks potentially going high, his floor would have to be at pick-five or just outside of it even if teams favor defenders like Jalen Carter (Georgia) and Tyree Wilson (Texas Tech) plus the top two consensus cornerbacks (Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez) over him.
Hunter Haas of NFL Mocks has him as a third potential option for the Houston Texans and what they do with the 2nd overall pick in this year’s draft if they stick with the pick.
Overall, Anderson has the pedigree, collegiate production at a top program, enough physical attributes, and an elite range to his game to warrant a top-five selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
2021– Miami, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Cincinnati
2022- Utah State, Texas, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss