When the New Orleans Saints drafted University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone (pronounced An-zuh-loan-ee) in the 3rd Round (#76 overall) of last year's 2017 NFL Draft, they did so with the knowledge in advance that despite his immense talent, they were also taking a "big risk" on a player with a very notable injury-history.
Unfortunately for both the Saints and Anzalone, that concern over his past health issues was validated rather quickly when his rookie season came to an abrupt end, after only playing in a grand total of 4 regular season games.
Anzalone was placed on injury reserve by the organization just a few days after sustaining a severe right shoulder injury during the first quarter of the Week #5 contest against the Miami Dolphins on October 1st, which took place in London, England. He exited that game in the 1st quarter, and left with a single tackle to his credit.
And while Anzalone's starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker was filled very capably by veteran Craig Robertson, one can only imagine what the difference would have been if the younger and presumably more-talented Anzalone could have remained on the field.
In 4 games, Anzalone totaled 16 tackles (11 solo) and a sack on 158 defensive snaps.
He also contributed 28 snaps on special teams and earned his first career sack in Week #2 against the New England Patriots, and then followed up that performance by racking up a career-high 7 tackles back in Week #3 against the Carolina Panthers.
"We felt like he had gotten off to a real good start," Saints head coach Sean Payton said to reporters after the win over Miami. "I know his surgery went well, and it was disappointing because he had really started well as a first-year player."
Now we fast forward a little bit over 8 months later, and a now-healthy Anzalone is expected to regain his starting role just so long as there aren't any setbacks with that very same right shoulder, which is the same one that he also dealt with previously in college.
Anzalone had successful surgery for that injury a few days after he was placed on IR, and there's no reason at least right now to suspect that he won't be ready to line-up at the starting "Will" LB spot against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2018 regular season opener at the Superdome on September 9th.
But nevertheless, the question still remains: can the big risk that the Saints took by choosing a player with a notable reputation for being "injury-prone", end up paying off as a big reward if he can stay healthy?
That's a good question, and one that likely won't have an answer at least until we see the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania native in action during Training Camp and the Pre-Season.
New Orleans selected the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Anzalone last year just a few months removed from his final season with the Gators in 2016, which was his first extended run of playing time in Gainsville after a series of injuries kept him off out of action on a constant basis.
Critics of the pick had warned that he spent almost as much time on the trainer's table than he had on the field, during his entire college career. He played in 10 games as a true freshman during the 2013 season, only making two tackles as he struggled with that shoulder issue.
Anzalone played in all 12 games as a back-up sophomore in 2014, making 14 stops, one for loss. He finally got his chance to start as a junior during the 2015 season, but had to redshirt after injuring his right-side shoulder again in the second game of the year against East Carolina.
Finally as a senior during the 2016 season, Anzalone started the Gators' first eight games, collecting 53 tackles (four TFL, three sacks) but again was sidelined for the remainder of the season — this time with a broken left arm.
Clearly from reviewing that history, we can see a pattern developing. So it's safe to say that the Saints scouting department knew exactly what the risk was, when the pick was made.
Yet in all fairness, when ever Anzalone is considered "healthy", he's been one of the very best players at his position regardless of who he's faced or the level of competition.
Bottom line: if he can stay healthy, he absolutely has the talent to become a solid three-down starter at this level; and possibly even one of the better players at the position League-wide, period.
The key word there however, is "if".
Last year as a rookie, Anzalone impressed coaches with his speed and ability to quickly cover a lot of ground by moving 'sideline to sideline'; and also his outstanding capability to provide tight pass coverage by "blanketing" RB's and TE's on pass defense.
Additionally, as a rookie he was already considered one of the most versatile players on the entire Saints team, since he's capable of playing all 3 linebacker positions — the middle ("Mike"), weakside ("Will"), and the strongside ("Sam").
But he's best-suited at the "Will" LB spot, and with a healthy Anzalone now returning to the line-up along with the recent signing in Free Agency of former New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis, the Saints LB corps should be better than last season.
That's actually saying quite a lot since the combination of A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson performed admirably for the majority of the 2017 season, and showed dramatic improvement from previous seasons when the LB position was manned by players such as "bust" Stephone Anthony (whom they took in the 1st Round of the 2015 Draft but traded to Miami last season), and a blatantly obvious "washed-up" James Laurinaitis in 2016 Free Agency.
If nothing else happens, adding Davis and a healthy Anzalone into the mix should serve as an upgrade for a Saints defense that went from being the 31st overall ranked scoring defense in the NFL in 2016, to 10th overall last season — an improvement of 21 spots.
Assuming Anzalone can stay on the field, the Saints LB corps could become yet another position of team strength, just as the Saints secondary did last season with the additions of 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams.
It simply will come down to whether or not the young man whom they were willing to take a "big risk" on at this very same time last year, can provide them with a "big reward" of playing in every game (or hopefully at least most of them) while making an indelible impact for an up-and-coming young Saints defensive unit that is trending upward.