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Barry Hirstius

3rd Year’s The Charm For Saints With Stephone Anthony – Or Is It?

Once upon a time, and a long, long time before he ever became a professional football player for the New Orleans Saints, there was a young man in a little town on the North Carolina - South Carolina border who possessed so much football talent that college recruiters were literally fighting each other to get a closer look at him.

The young man was so athletically gifted that when he was inserted into a game at tailback during his 2007 freshman year, he took a handoff and then "steamrolled" several defenders on his way for a 31-yard touchdown; on his first ever high school carry.

But where the young man truly excelled at was on the other side of the football, playing at linebacker.

It didn't matter where you put him, either on the outside edge rushing the quarterback or inside the box defending the middle of the field, he was going to make a play that would directly impact whatever game that he was in.

He was so good in fact, that he already had a remarkable 14 interceptions by the end his 2008 sophomore season; and quickly began showing up on the college football recruiting radar --- where grown men in their 40's (or older) almost came to blows just for the opportunity to get a much better view of him from the sidelines.

The young man went on to earn the North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year award in his senior season of 2010, a year in which he not only played every single linebacker spot on the field for the Anson County High School Bearcats football team; but also was the the squad's running back and even the designated kickoff and punt returner.

Additionally, he also earned first-team USA Today and 2010 Parade All-America honors and was ranked the No. 1 outside linebacker in the entire nation and the undisputed top player overall by ESPN.com.

 

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

Now of course, if you're reading this article, then you already know that the young man's name is Stephone Anthony; the very same young man who went on to become a star not far from Anson County at Clemson University --- where he became an 1st team All-ACC inside linebacker before he was chosen by the Saints in the 2015 NFL Draft, with the pick they got from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade.

Yet despite all of the talent that he was able to display in the years described right above, Anthony now finds himself just a few short years later in the battle of his life, both personally and professionally.

So what happened???

How did this young man, with so much incredible "can't miss" talent, find himself in this precarious position?

Although he started all 16 games as a rookie in 2015 and led the team with 112 tackles during a very promising debut / first season that year, Anthony has had some very notable struggles with adjusting to the mental aspects that go along with playing at the NFL level.

Photo courtesy of United Press International

Last year, after getting head coach Sean Payton’s blessing, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen moved Anthony to the “Sam” (strongside) linebacker position last summer, where the 24-year old (he turns 25 next month) former 1st-round pick ended up playing in only just 133 snaps on defense during the 2016 NFL season.

There's really no other way that you characterize Anthony's steep dive down the depth chart in Year 2 of his career, other than to say it was because of his inability to mentally grasp the various responsibilities required to play linebacker within the Saints scheme.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The Saints were basically forced to play with two linebackers last season because of the lack of quality play, as well as attrition due to a multitude of nagging injury issues.

Payton has looked to change that, by having GM Mickey Loomis go out in Free Agency and sign players like A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o; and then selecting University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone -- who like Anthony is athletically gifted enough to play ANY of the Saints linebacker spots within their scheme -- in the 3rd Round of the recent 2017 NFL Draft.

As of this moment, Klein appears to have already "locked down" the starting the “Mike” / middle linebacker spot, which last year was manned for a majority of the season by the team’s leading tackler and one of the top Free Agent signings of 2016; in veteran Craig Robertson.

Robertson this year will likely slide over to his more natural position of the “Will” / weakside linebacker spot, where he'll share time at that position but could see plenty of action given the notable past injury issues of starting “Will” LB Dannell Ellerbe.

And so that leaves Anthony........where exactly?

That's where our little story takes an interesting 'plot twist'.

According to New Orleans Advocate Saints beat writer / analyst Nick Underhill, Anthony has been logging snaps BACK once again at middle linebacker with the 1st team defense during OTA's and at the just recently completed Mini-Camp last week, alongside Klein and Alex Anzalone in the base defense.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

On other days, Underhill says that he played with the 2nd team while Klein leads the starters from the middle.

Underhill also makes the observation that the situation with Anthony at the moment is very flexible. He notes that while Anthony is getting his work on the inside, Payton recently said the team still believes he has the athletic capability / skill-set to play on the strong side -- which was why the team made the move to put him there last year.

Wherever he ends up, it's now become evident that the Saints HAVE NOT GIVEN UP on Anthony.

But --- can Anthony save himself and his professional career???

It's often said that the "3rd time's the charm" when circumstances haven't gone our way after the first two attempts of doing something in a particular situation, but can the "3rd year be the charm" in this instance for Anthony?

A player's 3rd year in the NFL is usually noted as the year where the proverbial "light bulb goes off" for players, and they become fully adjusted and acclimated to playing at the professional level, where it rakes a while to "get up to speed" with players that are BIGGER, STRONGER, AND FASTER that you've ever had to face before.

Will that be the case with Anthony?

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Time will certainly tell in the course of these few upcoming weeks and months, as Anthony faces the upcoming grind of Training Camp in the relentless New Orleans summertime beginning later next month; and the start of the 2017 Pre-Season that immediately that follows right afterwards.

The Saints coaching staff appears to be in Anthony's corner, despite the rumors swirling around the team previously during the off-season, some of which had indicated that the Saints organization was willing or had been seeking to trade him.

“I’ve been pleased with some of the progress we’ve seen out of him,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said to reporters at Mini-Camp last week. “Obviously, we have a long way to go, but I think he’s moving forward in a good direction right now.”

Saints head coach Sean Payton also gave Anthony some positive reviews.

“It’s hard because you’re not tackling, and you’re talking about a linebacker evaluation,” Payton said. “But yes (there is progress). The more and more he receives reps in the scheme, the more and more he is getting comfortable with not only the calls but also the identifications, offensive formations, run or pass. I think that is going well.”

Read into Payton's comments whatever you wish, but it would seem that the Saints are far from giving up on Anthony, because they are keenly aware of the talent still possessed by a young man who once upon a time ran for a TD on his first-ever carry on offense, and was the most feared player at his natural position in high school.

And they also aren't willing to give up on Anthony just yet, considering that they sacrificed one of the team's greatest players ever (Jimmy Graham) just so that they would be able to have the opportunity to get him in the first place.

For his part in all of this, Anthony is well aware of what he has to do going forward.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

“Of course. It’s always a challenge when you aren’t getting what you want,” Anthony said. “It (last year) was a challenge. It was just something I had to go through.”

Anthony then paused for a moment, before adding:

“It’s been going well,” Anthony said. “All I can do is come to work every day with the right mentality and keep learning.”

If Anthony's belief in his own abilities are as strong as the coaching staff's are, then perhaps then final chapter on his time in New Orleans isn't anywhere close to being written just yet.

Is the 3rd year of his NFL career "the charm" for a young man named Stephone Anthony?

It would seem that each and every single one of us are about to find out the answer to that question, soon enough........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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