The Saints’ Linebacker corps has needed improvement over recent seasons. Not much mystery there. In this year’s draft, we expected this to be addressed in the first or second round with prospects like Rueben Foster and Zach Cunningham set to be available. However, the Saints instead chose to focus early on their secondary and BPA selections. Come our second pick in the third round, a Linebacker finally came off the board to New Orleans. But it wasn’t a name that most expected to hear. Alex Anzalone, LB from Florida, was chosen with the 76th pick.
I know I said that I wouldn’t focus much on injuries throughout this series, but the Anzalone pick brings with it too much concern to not address it. In 2013, Anzalone suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder during a spring practice tackling drill. He then recovered but re-injured the same shoulder in 2015 after starting a couple of games. In 2016, he played with much praise until he suffered a broken left forearm; an injury that many quality linebackers have successfully recovered from as noted by Jeff Sigler over at canalstreetchronicals.com. That same article makes another great point too- aside from these two injuries, Anzalone is in tip-top shape. As long as he can keep his shoulder intact, we should expect to see him compete and make plays. As mentioned, Linebacker is a big need for us, so having any warm, breathing, and competitive body in the position is a sign of hope. But Anzalone is more than that when healthy. The guy can be a bullet from the second level, has the speed to cover RBs and TEs up the field (which has a glaring issue for our defense), and can be the perimeter disrupter we need in the run/screen game with more development. There’s just as much to be excited about with this guy as there is to be concerned. With that, let’s look at some Anzalone expectations.
One of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL, in my opinion, is Seattle’s K.J. Wright. Though he didn’t have a stellar rookie outing, his sophomore season was impressive. He started in all 15 games he played and recorded 1 INT, 1 sack, and just under 100 tackles. The best-case for Anzalone would be to win one of the starting spots in the New Orleans LB corps. I see A.J. Klein as the most likely to end up starting as the signal caller at MLB, so I’m betting that if Anzalone takes a spot, it’ll be on the outside. He played weak side linebacker (WILL) in Florida. In the 8 games that he played in 2016, before the broken arm, Anzalone recorded 75 total tackles (5 for a loss), 3 sacks, and 2 PBUs. If he manages to win the starting WILL spot this year, he could ball out and put on a show while he’s healthy. He’s shown a propensity to be a three-down guy, so he’d have lots of opportunities to prove his worth thanks to what looks like yet another quick-scoring offense. Also, let’s be real, Anzalone winning the starting position isn’t far from reality. Weak side LB isn’t a position we’re stacked at, PFF listed him as a potential rookie starter along with Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams (BAE), and Dannell Ellerbe’s impending release leaves the door all the way open.
Stat Line: 80 tackles (4 for a loss), 1 sack, 5 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 FF
I’m skipping the Stephone Anthony comparison here because I’ve used it before and we all know it. Seriously. We get it. I’m going back to draft profile pro comparisons instead. NFL.com compared Anzalone to Vincent Rey while PFF compared him to Jonathan Casillas. Now, if these comparisons come to fruition in the long run, we’ve got a good thing. But in terms of immediate effect in the rookie/sophomore season, these guys become a worst-case scenario. According to PFF, Casillas (drafted by the Saints in 2009- an okay year, I guess) was “a strong athlete” with an “inability to defeat blockers.” Ability to beat blockers was a big concern around Anzalone coming into the draft. Though he can be explosive, he’s had trouble disengaging off blocks. Vincent Rey, on the other hand, simply just didn’t see the field much until his 5th year. Though he played in all 16 games years 2-4, he had hadn’t started in more than 3. What we could end up seeing with Anzalone is that he doesn’t win a starting position, falls behind the curb to fit in reliably as a rotational guy, and is forced to prove his worth as a special teams player. PFF noted that Anzalone has little experience when it comes to special teams, so this truly would be the worst fit for him coming into the league. Though it is reasonable to expect that he’d make the best out of it. For a rookie, cracking the top-53 is worth it all.
Stat Line: 20 tackles (0 for a loss), 0 sacks, 0 PBUs, 0 INTs, 0 FFs
The Saints have been working Anzalone heavily at WILL so far in camp. He’s seen second and first-team snaps. So, I’d like to compare him one of the more impressive rookie OLB seasons we’ve recently seen. 2013 rookie OLB Jamie Collins played very well for the Patriots despite not recording a single INT or sack his rookie season. Anzalone didn’t record a single INT throughout his time at Florida. But both guys have found ways to contribute without creating turnovers. Their skills in coverage have made them valuable. Taking away the RB or TE in the QB progression extends the time the defensive line has to create pressure. They also have the ability to get their hands up and contest the pass. Collins had 4 PBUs his rookie year along with 48 tackles. As a rotational player who only started in 8 games, that’s pretty damn good. I see Anzalone making himself known for his coverage ability more than his capacity to get after the QB. However, look for Anzalone to develop his pass rush game over his time with New Orleans. He’s not afraid of contact, but can use some work getting off blocks. Collins followed up his rookie year with 4 sacks, 114 total tackles, 3 PBUs, 2 INTs, and 4 FFs and a Super Bowl ring. Let’s hope we can see that kind of contribution over the years from Anzalone as well.
Stat Line: 45 tackles (3 for a loss), 0 sacks, 4 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF
Something we’ve seen pointed out a lot when it comes to Anzalone is the praise that Sean Payton gave him early on in training camp. Payton said that he was impressed with his instincts, vision, and ability to key-and-diagnose. These are the types of qualities Payton mentioned that Stephone Anthony struggled with last year. That’s a stark comparison and some high praise for a guy coming out of a major conference with a limited resume. I believe that if he can stay healthy and keep making plays like these, he’ll become a big time asset for the defense. His 4.63 40 time is fantastic for a guy his size at 6’3″ and 241 lbs. He adds to the fastest and most athletic LB group we’ve seen in New Orleans in quite some time. He’s a welcome addition to an improving Saints defense. One thing’s for sure, if he cracks that starting lineup and is playing well by the time the Saints travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams, I’ll be out there with a sign that reads “Welcome to the DANGER ZalONE”. Because I’m a grown man, and I do what I want.
Next time: Third-round pick (103) Trey Hendrickson