Unlike any Saints rookie draft class in recent memory, the 2017 Saints Rookie Draft Class has a chance to be something truly special. Yesterday about halfway through the team's 1st practice while wearing full pads in Training Camp, both paid observers of the team as well as a sold-out, "packed house" full of fans in attendance, got a glimpse of exactly why it will be special.
During the team drills portion of practice with the 1st team offense and defense going head-to-head in 11-on-11's, it was 3rd Round pick Alex Anzalone -- who had been given the starting nod for the day's worth of practice at the "Will" / weakside linebacker position -- who "snuffed out" a screen pass from QB Drew Brees to RB Adrian Peterson and tackled the 4-time All-Pro for what would have been at least a 2-yard loss on the play.
Rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone with a nice play here he really took advantage of his reps today pic.twitter.com/X21mIEHMqz
— Amos Morale III (@Amos_MoraleIII) July 29, 2017
The 6-foot-3, 241 pound rookie Anzalone not only stopped Peterson "dead in his tracks", but also had the presence of mind to make an attempt at stripping the ball out of Peterson's hands; before the play would have likely been blown dead by a referee's whistle, had it actually been a live game.
In the process, the rookie essentially 'blew up' a play between two future Hall-of-Famers.
It was yet another indication of exactly why the Saints took Anzalone with the #76th pick overall of the 3rd Round from the University of Florida in this past April's 2017 NFL Draft, for not only his superior athleticism but also his notable quickness and sideline-to-sideline cover ability.
The play obviously was one of the highlights of the entire practice, which prompted this observation in head coach Sean Payton's post-practice news conference in regard to Anzalone's natural instincts and his high football IQ which provides him with the capability to correctly diagnose plays.
"The one thing you notice right away is that he's a guy that's tough to fool," Payton said of Anzalone. "He understands. He has really good vision. I think a great trait for any defensive player, particularly a linebacker, is being able to key-and-diagnose and recognize what they are getting ready to defend."
Anzalone was part of the 3-man starting rotation yesterday at linebacker within the Saints base 4-3 defensive scheme, where the Saints coaching staff has been "mix and matching" and rotating players in and out of the line-up; to evaluate who can do what, and which looks / coverages are the ones that work best.
Yesterday's rotation was Craig Robertson at middle / "Mike" linebacker, A.J. Klein at strongside / "Sam" linebacker, and then Anzalone at weakside / "Will" linebacker.
The previous 2 days before, the line-up featured Mantai Te'o at middle / "Mike" linebacker, A.J. Klein at strongside / "Sam" linebacker, and Stephone Anthony at weakside / "Will" linebacker.
At this point with the Saints only 3 practices into Camp, it would appear that Anzalone is competing directly against Stephone Anthony for the starting weakside / "Will" linebacker job.
And it's certainly very ironic that Payton complimented Anzalone for his instincts and recognition skills – the same things that have held Anthony back in his first 2 seasons with the team, since he was drafted with the #1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft that the Saints got from Seattle (#31 overall) in exchange with Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade.
But Anthony has actually looked very good during his first 2 practices at the "Will" spot, making the battle that's shaping up between him and Anzalone for the position, one of the most intriguing ones in all of Camp.
However it should be important to note: Anzalone's aggression and attitude for playing linebacker is his "calling card".
Those attributes possessed by the 22-year old Wyomissing, Pennsylvania native could be a determining factor if in fact the Saints plan on making this a 2-way battle between two of their youngest and most athletically-gifted LB's on the roster.
Anzalone (pronounced AN-ZA-LO-NEE) has the capability (because of his notable athleticism) to make up a lot of space on the field; and can even hang with RB's coming out of the backfield or TE's headed down the seam.
He can take on blockers head-to-head and isn't shy about aggressively throwing his body into making a play or a tackle on the ball-carrier, as evidenced by that play against Peterson yesterday.
Anzalone can also move all around the defensive formation and plug up any gap, and can time blitzes well --- but it's his closing speed in particular that truly sets him apart from most LB's.
The bottom line is that Anzalone has the talent, the ability, and perhaps most importantly: the smarts to become a 3-down linebacker in the NFL; and his versatility allows him to play any of the LB positions, within any scheme.
But that same thing could be said about Anthony as well, and at this point the only thing holding back Anthony is being able to show that he can consistently read and diagnose plays -- something that Anzalone clearly showed yesterday as he 'blew up' that play against two future Hall of Famers.
The only concern as of now with Anzalone is for him to remain healthy. Each of Anzalone’s last two seasons in college with the Gators, were cut short due to injury.
In 2015 he missed 12 games with a shoulder injury (the same shoulder limited him in 2013 as well), and last season he did not play the final four games due to a broken arm. That will be something that the Saints coaching staff will no doubt have squarely in the back of their minds as they press forward.
As Camp and the impending Pre-Season (the 1st game is at Cleveland a week from this coming Thursday on August 10th) progresses forward, it will be interesting to watch how this brewing battle between Anzalone and Anthony shapes up, and which of the team's most athletically-gifted players will emerge as the eventual starter.
The plan could even be that they will rotate Anzalone and Anthony in and out of the line-up, and essentially have a "time-share" between the two players throughout the season.
One thing is evident: with the looming and imminent departure of 31-year old and 9-year veteran Dannell Ellerbe, the Saints weakside / "Will" LB position undeniably is about to get a shot of youth and an infusion of speed.
And if Anzalone emerges as the winner, it will get a taste of aggression and attitude as well.
After all: it's his "calling card".......