In case you missed it during the Saints' opening Pre-Season loss to Cleveland the other night, you couldn't help but bring your eyes to focus squarely upon the Saints defensive wearing the black uniform with the gold #47 on it; with a mane of long flowing blond hair sticking out from beneath his helmet partially obscuring the letters that spelled out his name.
That name and those blond flowing locks of course belonged to Saints rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone, who was inserted into the game on the 2nd Saints defensive series at the "Will" / weak side linebacker spot during a scoreless mid 1st Quarter.
Anzalone ended up playing in a total of 40 defensive snaps (52%), and his presence on the field provided just a small but yet very insightful view of the "immediate impact" that the soon-to-be 23 year old is expected to have for the Saints defensive unit in the upcoming 2017 NFL season.
Essentially, Anzalone was all over the place; while displaying the same impressive short-area quickness that put him on the map for NFL (and Saints) scouts.
Anzalone has the speed and burst to cover most TEs and RBs out of the backfield, and it was on full display late in the 1st quarter when Anzalone -- who had backpedaled and dropped into zone coverage -- showed his full range by leaping up and deflecting a pass intended for Browns 2nd year WR Rannell Hall, who had settled in right behind Anzalone as the target of Cleveland QB Brock Osweiler (click the video right below).
— Sharief Ishaq (@ShariefWDSU) August 11, 2017
It was the "highlight" of Anzalone's night; the very same night where he finished with that pass deflection along with 3 total tackles to his credit in the stat column, in what was his first-ever action in an NFL game.
In essence, the former University of Florida star and second of three Saints 2017 3rd Round Draft picks, got right to work.
As the Saints returned to full 11-on-11 team drills in practice earlier today, Anzalone was at it yet again.
After he had slipped on a still somewhat wet field from an overnight rain shower and got beaten in pass coverage by a Drew Brees back-shoulder throw to a streaking RB Alvin Kamara on an earlier play, Anzalone quickly redeemed himself.
As Brees took the shotgun snap from center, a blitzing Anzalone leaped high and deflected the pass at the line of scrimmage; and right into the waiting hands of All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan --- who then with a great huge smile on his face visible through his helmet, ran the ball back for what would have been a 60-yard "Pick 6" return for a touchdown.
A blitzing Anzalone bats a ball into the air, Cam Jordan picks it off and returns it all the way for a TD, smiling the whole way
— Joel A. Erickson (@JoelAErickson) August 12, 2017
It was yet just one more example of the playmaking capability and athleticism that potentially makes Anzalone one of the team's best picks at the linebacker position in decades.
While the jury is still out on 2015 1st Round pick and 3rd year LB Stephone Anthony with regard to his development, there isn't any doubt whatsoever as to how far along Anzalone is already.
Although there's still two more weeks of Saints Training Camp and 3 more Pre-Season games to be played before the Saints eventually open the season at Minnesota against the Vikings on ESPN Monday Night Football September 11th, there is any doubt: Anzalone has a LEGITIMATE shot at becoming a starter as a rookie.
Alex Anzalone has looked good in both practice and preseason. He could end up winning a starting spot.
— AllSaintsConsidered (@SaintsRadioHour) August 12, 2017
That Anzalone is on the precipice of making an immediate impact this year shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. When watching Anzalone this summer and especially in these last few days, it becomes evident just what it was that made Anzalone stand out to Saints scouts during the draft process.
The 6-foot-3, 240 pounder has great size for the LB position, and his previously noted versatility is what gives him the capability to play both outside and inside within the Saints base defensive scheme.
That play the other night was a prime example of how Anzalone possesses the fluidity of motion necessary not only to play sideline-to-sideline, but yet still had the presence of mind to "feel" a targeted player while backpedaling in coverage (the Browns WR in that case) and was still be able to change direction just enough to get a hand up and make a play on the ball.
Anzalone also has a naturally high "football IQ", and his understanding of taking proper angles and how to exploit the most efficient path to the QB or ball-carrier in the opponent's backfield, gives him an extra advantage in "blowing up" plays --- as we've seen from a handful of times in practice thus far in Camp, including once again today that led to the Jordan "Pick 6".
One other thing to keep in mind: as a rookie, Anzalone's first ever position coach is Mike Nolan, the well-respected and long-time NFL assistant coach (whom many refer to as a defensive "guru") guiding him, as opposed to the man previously in that position, former Saints assistant Joe Vitt --- who's now coaching in Miami on the staff of his son-in-law, Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
#Saints LB Mauti on Vitt vs Nolan "Coach Nolan just kinda knows where we (should) fit on the defense. He's a great teacher."
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) August 12, 2017
Anzalone obviously brought a lot of natural talent to the table, but it can't be emphasized enough how critical it is to his development as a pro (and to the whole Saints linebacker corps as a whole for that matter), to have someone now like the reputable Nolan coaching them; as opposed to the style, approach, and type of coaching that they were getting before with Vitt.
It all adds up to creating an environment in which Alex Anzalone appears to be thriving in thus far; and if he is truly able to conquer the one issue that he had coming into the League (he never played a full season healthy during his entire college career at Florida because of a series of shoulder surgeries and then a broken arm last season), he has the necessary tools to emerge as a star at the LB position for New Orleans.
As the Saints inch closer towards the regular season, Saints fans no doubt will keep their eyes on #47.
You can't miss him, with his ever-present flowing mane of long, gold locks peering out from beneath his helmet.
He'll be the one making plays: breaking up a pass here, blowing up a RB behind the line of scrimmage there, assisting a teammate on a tackle just about anywhere.
Alex Anzalone is having an immediate impact for the New Orleans Saints defense --- and he's ready to do some more work..........