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It’s not typical for an undrafted player to make an impact during his rookie season, or for his entire career.
Sure, it happens around the league every year, but only a handful of these players emerge out of the hundreds that sign to teams after the draft.
Players can fall out of the draft for a multitude of reasons. Even if they have a rock-solid collegiate career, they can get glossed over by every team as they place extra emphasis on the measurables.
After not being picked in the draft, the linebacker from Wisconsin has played with a chip on his shoulder, aiming to make the most of every opportunity, every rep. As a result, he has garnered the attention of coaches, teammates, opponents, and fans.
And no, I’m not talking about Chicago’s standout Jack Sanborn … I was describing Eagles’ linebacker T.J. Edwards and his path to the NFL after going undrafted in 2019.
But you have to admit, his story sounds similar to Sanborn’s, doesn’t it?
The parallels don’t stop there …
Not only did the two linebackers each play four years at Wisconsin before eventually making the NFC team that signed them after the draft, they also both grew up in Illinois. Sanborn is from Lake Zurich, and Edwards went to high school 35 minutes north in Lake Villa at Lakes Community. Their birthdays (albeit different years) are less than two weeks apart.
Small world, huh?
Is it a coincidence that both linebackers wear the number 57 in the NFL?
Probably. But still … fascinating!
It should also be noted that Sanborn and Edwards were teammates at UW for one season. Edwards was a senior when Sanborn was a freshman.
Both had productive college careers, but were overlooked due to concerns regarding their overall athleticism.
Here’s a line on Edwards’ draft profile on the NFL’s site: “He’s the kind of player that nobody in our scouting department gets excited about because he’s not fast or splashy, but he knows how to play. “
And here’s one on Sanborn from his draft profile: “He lacks the length and athleticism desired of an NFL linebacker, but he’s technically sound and in his element as a face-up tackler when the action flows downhill at him.”
Both entered the league under similar circumstances and with the majority of evaluators coming to the same conclusions about the linebackers.
And both have set out to prove the doubters wrong.
Edwards has rapidly developed into a top linebacker in the NFL …
Edwards didn’t make a large impact out of the gate. He played primarily on special teams as a rookie, only starting four games that season. He ended up starting 12 games his second year, which is when he started turning heads. Edwards finished that season with 70 total tackles, five for loss, and two sacks.
That didn’t earn him a starting job to begin 2021, but after a few weeks, his number was called. Edwards made the most of his opportunity by racking up 130 total tackles, five for loss, one sack, one interception and five passes defensed. He played so well, the Eagles decided to extend him in late November instead of waiting for the offseason.
And in 2022, Edwards’ ascension has only continued. Entering the Week 15 matchup against the Bears, he already has 115 tackles, eight for loss, five QB hits, two sacks and seven passes defensed. He was recently recognized by making PFF’s Third-Quarter All-Pro team.
From undrafted to being considered one of the best linebackers in the league, Bears fans should take notice of Edwards’ rise.
Sanborn is ahead of schedule …
During Sanborn’s freshman year at Wisconsin, Edwards had some kind words for the freshman.
“[Sanborn] is very athletic, a guy who has a really good sense of where the ball is going to be and a high football IQ,” Edwards told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I think he knows a lot for where he is right now … I definitely was nowhere near that as a true freshman.”
Some things never change. Just like in college, it appears that Sanborn is ahead of his predecessor. He already has one more start than Edwards had as a rookie, and is on track to collect four more before the season’s complete.
In his five starts, Sanborn has 54 combined tackles, five for loss, three QB hits, and two sacks. That’s 40 more tackles than Edwards had in his four starts during his rookie season. Edwards failed to tally a single TFL, QB hit or sack that year.
So, Sanborn is without question playing at a different level than Edwards did in his first year.
This is the part where you get really excited as a Bears Fan …
Sanborn can become special sooner than most think …
If Edwards is the blueprint, and Sanborn is developing at a faster rate, then there is no reason why there shouldn’t be legitimate hope surrounding Sanborn’s potential to turn into a top-caliber linebacker in the NFL.
And in some ways, he already has. According to PFF, Sanborn ranks fourth among all linebackers in tackles since he took over starting duties in Week 9. He also ranks fourth in run stops in that span.
One area that Sanborn will need to continue working on in order to reach that next tier of linebackers is his pass coverage. Since becoming a starter, he’s allowed a passer rating of 103 and a completion percentage of 81 when targeted.
On the other hand, Edwards has been one of the best cover linebackers in the league this year. He’s given up the lowest completion percentage (58.8%) and a passer rating (67.9) at the position.
But guess what? Edwards’ weakness used to be coverage. That’s right, he was once a liability. He gave up completions on 83.6 percent of targets and a passer rating of 105.2 last season.
Just because Sanborn is currently struggling in coverage, Edwards’ growth in this department is a prime example that should provide hope for Sanborn’s chances toward having similar improvement, perhaps as soon as next season.
If Sanborn can continue making tackles at his current rate, and improve his coverage skills along the way, there is no reason why he wouldn’t be looked at as a top linebacker in the NFL.
Edwards is one of the more fascinating stories in the NFL today. He’s in line for a big payday during the offseason and is on a team that may very well win the Super Bowl this season.
His personal story seems to be repeating itself in Sanborn, just as it always has. From growing up nearby, playing the same position at the same college, to both going undrafted due to athleticism concerns and working their way up the hard way, these two linebackers will always be connected to one another.
Sanborn has a real chance of replicating what Edwards has been able to accomplish in the pros. Not just that, but there’s also the very real possibility that Sanborn will surpass Edwards. He is ahead of schedule, after all.
And if that ends up being the case, the Bears will be set at inside linebacker for a long, long time.
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