A conversation that I ended up having while I was right in the middle of observing Saints Training Camp Practice #7 yesterday, with a 40-something year old Saints fan who identified himself as 'Bill'.
FAN: "Hey, don't I know you?"
ME: (wearing sunglasses and a hat, and hoping to remain inconspicuous): "I know a lot of people".
FAN: "I hear ya (laughs). Man, them boys sure are looking really good right now"..... (he's waiting for me to respond)
ME: "The most impressive thing I've seen today is the linebackers", I tell him; while secretly hoping that the conversation ends at that point.
FAN: "Yeah, they've got some good ones this year, but I especially like that number #47 with the long hair out of all of them; uh......Anza.....Anza.....Anza-lon.... " (he's not sure how to pronounce it, so I help him out)
ME: "It's 'An-zuh-loan-ee' — just like a baloney sandwich", I tell him; repeating the same thing that I've said at least a thousand times to many other Saints fans in the past year and a half.
And then I add this caveat to his observation: "Yeah, that kid is a "beast" — whenever he can actually stay healthy long enough to be out there".
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) July 30, 2018
Without a doubt, the Saints defensive coaching staff probably feels the exact same way.
And it's been the bitter-sweet irony for the Saints franchise ever since they selected the former University of Florida star in the 3rd Round (#76 overall) of last year's 2017 NFL Draft.
The Saints scouting department still decided to take Anzalone despite the knowledge in advance that even though he possessed immense talent, they nevertheless were also going to be 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 how different the Saints defensive performance might have been (even better than it was?) if the younger (and presumably more-talented) Anzalone — who turns age 24 next month — 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.
But here we are now at 2018 Training Camp almost a whole year 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 in just a little bit over a month more from now, on September 9th.
But nevertheless, the question still remains: can Anzalone ever stay on the football field long enough, to show everyone just how good he can become at the NFL level?
At times, Anzalone can be frustratingly both good and bad, in the same game and as yesterday illustrated: even during the same practice.
In fact, Anzalone was beat badly on one play in particular when he was unable to keep up with and cover RB Alvin Kamara coming across the middle on an option route pass out of the backfield, allowing Kamara to essentially walk into the end zone for the easy TD.
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) August 2, 2018
However in Anzalone's defense: Kamara can make a lot of other good players across the NFL look pretty silly sometimes, as well.
But then just a few short plays later, Anzalone came right back to make a BRILLIANT PBU (pass break-up) in the back of the end zone on a pass intended for back-up TE Michael Hoomanawanui.
Then not long after that: he made a nice goal-line run stop of RB Mark Ingram, who had tried to out-sprint Anzalone to the left-corner pylon but was denied entry.
Alex Anzalone keeps Mark Ingram out of the end zone pic.twitter.com/ntFv10d837
— Amos Morale III (@Amos_MoraleIII) August 2, 2018
One thing that's become evident for me personally as I've observed Camp thus far is just how good that I believe that the Saints currently projected starting trio at LB's can be in the upcoming season ahead; with prized free agent signee Demario Davis at "Mike" / Middle LB, Anzalone at the "Will" / weak side spot, and 6th year veteran A.J. Klein at the "Sam" / strong side position.
You'd have to think having just watched this first week of practice, that they could even be among some of the best starting group of LB's that you will find anywhere, League-wide.
And if they aren't the best, they certainly might rank among the fastest speed-wise.
Anzalone in particular appears to be an absolute "beast" when he's actually healthy, but unfortunately injuries in one way, shape, or form of another, have kept him from playing a full season since his sophomore year of high school.
Alex Anzalone is a BEAST when he's "healthy" -- if he can avoid the injury.-bug this year. he and Demario Davis will be difference-makers especially in pass coverage
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) August 2, 2018
If Anzalone can STAY on the field, he and Davis (the LB corps' two fastest players) could be huge difference-makers this season — especially in pass coverage.
Unfortunately, the odds are against Anzalone at this point, if we're strictly going by his past injury history.
Could 2018 FINALLY be the year that Anzalone manages to stay healthy long enough to prove how good that he can truly become for the Saints defense?
That's something we'll all no doubt find out for ourselves, in the upcoming weeks and months that still lie ahead.
But this much remains a fact: