2017 NFL Draft: Ryan Anderson is the best Alabama player no one's talking about
Anderson will be keeping track of the linebackers who get picked before him on draft night
Ryan Anderson isn't interested in being a workout warrior. He isn't bogged down over hundredths of a second on his 40-yard dash time. He isn't obsessing over his verticals, or his broad jump. At this point, if anything, he's ecstatic to have the poking and prodding and numbers-based metrics of the Underwear Olympics now firmly behind him, and the draft finally just mere days away.
Because what Ryan Anderson is fixated on is playing football -- setting the edge, overpowering a tackle, intimidating a tight end, harassing a quarterback -- and last year, in all of college football, few did it better. He doesn't give a damn about what you may think of his combine performance, frankly, as there is ample video proof of him dominating the SEC on Saturdays and of taking over bowl games, which indicates more than anything else what he may be capable of in the pro ranks. And if you need reminding of that, or some of the players he got the better of in college -- like 2016 breakout rookies Jack Conklin (Titans) or Hunter Henry (Chargers) -- well, Anderson isn't shy about doing that, either.
Anderson (6-foot-2, 253 pounds) is an alpha male among alpha males in the Alabama program, a leader, a tone setter, a violent and productive outside linebacker who just may have taken home an MVP trophy in the national championship game had the Crimson Tide held on to beat Clemson. He has been a menace to opponents the past three seasons, and was an absolute beast in 2016, and, for whatever reason, someone who teams seem content to say very little about in hopes he falls to them somewhere in the second day of the draft.
Of all the Alabama players with high draft grades, he is the one you hear the least about. If he had jumped a few inches higher or ran a little faster than a 4.78-second 40-yard dash, there is a good chance he'd be getting mentioned as a top-10 talent alongside Alabama teammates Reuben Foster and Jonathan Allen. Instead, I suspect, Anderson hears his name called within the first 10 picks of the second round -- sneaking into the late first wouldn't shock me -- and whichever team lands him will be getting a highly-motivated force who won't be defined by a stopwatch or a ruler.
"I train hard, I work hard, but I ain't no workout warrior," Anderson explained. "I don't care about broad jumps and long jumps. I ran at the combine and I'm fast enough to set the edge -- nobody beat me on the edge. I can run with tight ends. I can cover running backs. Football is football. I'm a football player. All that other stuff, you can break it down however you want to break it down. It has nothing to do with football."
Considering the number of big games in which he has shined, the way Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban raves about him to NFL people, the deference with which some of his college teammates speak about him and the lofty position he held in this uber-program, it's surprising how little you hear about Anderson. At the time of his final college game, based on football production alone, he stood out as a imminent first-rounder. The physical testing at the combine and pro days tend to shift the focus of the evaluation process, but in these final hours before the draft, scouts, GMs and coaches generally go back to the film. And on that Anderson soars.
He's gruff. He plays with a mean streak. He's a bit of the throwback who isn't going to put on airs or try to pretend he's something he's not just to put a happy face on the lengthy, and trying, and often silly predraft process. But he is clearly passionate about football and being an impact player in the NFL.
"I can run with tight ends. I can cover running backs. Football is football. I'm a football player. All that other stuff, you can break it down however you want to break it down. It has nothing to do with football" -- Ryan Anderson
One veteran NFC linebackers coach considers Anderson one of the better outside linebacker prospects to come around in a long time: "Just watch the (bleeping) tape! This kid is a man."
Another NFC linebacker coach expressed the following to Anderson after the combine: "When all the coaches get past all of this combine bulls--t, they will get to the film and understand that you are one of the best players at any position in this draft."
A top executive with one NFL club said: "We have him in the top of the second round. He won't get past that round. He's a damn good football player."
Some have tried to ding Anderson for his arm length and reach, but as I asked around to teams privately about how they felt about him, and why he's not being talked about as much in the first round, I had one mention that Anderson's arms are longer than those of Chargers pass rusher Melvin Ingram, who just got the lucrative franchise tag this offseason.
Teams have expressed concerns in recent years about the health of some Alabama players, given how hard Saban works them and with some Crimson Tide prospects fading quickly in the pros due to health concerns. Anderson powered through a shoulder injury in the college football playoffs and didn't miss snaps, much less games. How many practices did he miss in five years on campus?
"One, I missed one practice," Anderson said.
His easiest transition to the NFL would probably come as a 3-4 outside linebacker (the Cardinals, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Jets are among those who he'd fit with and who like him), but Anderson has also played inside some and he could be shifted around the front seven. Anderson, a hotly coveted prospect out of high school, chose Alabama in no small part because of Saban's dynamic 3-4 scheme, but he believes he can mesh in a 4-3 as well.
"I've been playing in a 3-4 defense since I was at high school, and that played a big part in the college I went to," Anderson said. "But at the end of the day football is football ... It don't matter what defense I'm in -- if I have to set the edge, then I have to set the edge. If I'm playing linebacker -- a curl flat is a curl flat, no matter what you do. Football is see ball, get ball. Period."
Easy to see why the linebacker coaches are those who fall the hardest for him. He speaks their language, he sees the game with their eyes and they are eager to work with him. Yet through all the flights and all the meetings with teams and the multiple Alabama pro days, seemingly barely a word was uttered about Anderson.
"It's almost comical and then it gets frustrating, like, 'Are you serious?' Anderson said when asked about the litany of other linebackers frequently mocked as first-rounders. "I'm versatile. I can play inside linebacker and I can play outside. I can set the edge. I can rush the passer. I can do everything at a high level. You want me to cover the back? I can cover the back. You want me to cover the tight end? I can cover the tight end. Put the tape on -- it's all there."
How did he fare against Henry? "I dominated him nearly all night," Anderson says, referring back to a game in 2014 when Anderson first started getting more playing time on defense. Conklin, who had a ferocious rookie season in Tennessee? "I beat him up pretty good," Anderson says of facing the tackle while he was at Michigan State.
"There's not a more dominant outside linebacker in this draft -- period," said Anderson's agent, Chad Wiestling. "I'll put his tape up against anybody's in this draft."
Anderson hasn't been on a losing team since, perhaps, Pee Wee football. His high school team went 15-0 one year and won a state championship; he had a "down" year as a senior, losing two games. At Alabama he won four SEC titles and two national championships, with Anderson a driving force and not a passenger. That's a lot to overlook as 30 or more other players come off the board, and I came away from my conversation with Anderson fairly convinced that he will be taking names and keeping his private tally of those who do indeed pass on him.
"I just want to get back out there and play football," he said. "The cake is going to be baked, and it's going to be baked just right. I don't really have that much more to say about it. When I get on my team and things get rolling, then we'll see who can play."
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