Last Friday night we were all huddled around glowing screens, anxiously waiting to see which college football stars would be joining the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans caused some unexpected drama when they traded up to the 67th overall pick for Tennessee Volunteers running back Alvin Kamara while still retaining their 76th overall selection.
Saints faithful all over the world kept their attention focused on their phones, televisions, and radios as former wide receiver Lance Moore, a Super Bowl champion and longtime fan-favorite, walked back out to announce the pick.
Who would be the next Saint? Alabama Crimson Tide pass rusher Tim Williams (picked 78th by the Baltimore Ravens) and Youngstown State Penguins defensive end Derek Rivers (drafted 83rd by the New England Patriots) had been common in mock drafts, and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Carlos Henderson (the Denver Broncos’ 82nd selection) had many locals pulling for him.
Moore stepped up to the podium and read the card: “Alex Anzalone, linebacker, Florida.”
Anzalone was not expected to be a high draft pick. A consensus ranking of nearly fifty different evaluators’ big boards had him rated as the 106th-overall prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft class. For many fans, the pick looked like a reach.
That was my thought, too. All I knew about Anzalone was that he had missed time to injuries but had looked good at Senior Bowl practices back in February. He didn’t even have video cutups on DraftBreakdown.com, though the great team at DB have since added a video featuring all of Anzalone’s snaps versus the Kentucky Wildcats:
Even so, I persevered. I was able to put enough of Anzalone’s tape together through watching cutups of his teammates like linebacker Jarrad Davis (a first round pick to the Detroit Lions) and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley (a Cleveland Browns late-round selection), as well as opponents like Kentucky center Jon Toth (the irony of the same game recut to focus on Anzalone is not lost on me).
We’ll get to what the tape showed me in a minute, because first we’ve got to discuss the elephant in the room. Anywhere you look you’ll see that Anzalone brings injury concerns. But this isn’t a case comparable to, say, Dannell Ellerbe, whose chronic hip and quad muscle injuries have kept him on and off of the weekly injury report.
I looked into Anzalone’s injury history and it honestly isn’t as bad as I expected. He entered Gainesvile as a five-star linebacker/fullback early enrollee out of high school but tore the labrum in his right shoulder during routine a drill in 2013 spring practice. Then-head coach Will Muschamp explained:
“It was in a tackling drill. He just got hit on it the wrong way. Disappointed for him, but he’s going to be a really good player, so we’re going to be fine.”
Anzalone then went through surgery and a rehab process that cost a big role during his freshman year. He appeared in 10 games as a reserve linebacker and flashed on special teams units, but didn’t crack the starting lineup. Anzalone continued to work into the rotation as a reserve during the 2014 season, but couldn’t displace junior linebacker Antonio Morrison as the starter. Injuries weren’t a problem for him.
Finally, Anzalone made the first team defense in 2015. The junior linebacker played well in the season debut but bad luck struck the next week when he aggravated the surgically-repaired labrum. The injury caused him to take a medical redshirt. Jarrad Davis, his teammate at inside linebacker, defined Anzalone’s importance as the “quarterback of the defense”:
"I never like to see things like that. That’s a guy that I bled, sweat and worked with. We all put in that work together and that guy did some awesome things this offseason – things that I didn’t expect him to do. He earned his job this year, he really did. To see him go down like that, that hurts my heart because I know what he put in. I was right there next to him when he was putting in that work. We put it in together. To see him go down like that, I don’t like seeing that. It really hurts me."
That brings us to 2016. Fully recovered and rehabbed from the damage to his right shoulder (and nothing else), Anzalone took the field as the starting weakside linebacker in base and nickel packages. He played really well, which I’ll elaborate on below the jump. The important thing to take away is that Anzalone wasn’t on the injury report during the 2016 season, playing a majority of snaps against good competition around the SEC.
That said, Anzalone did not finish his senior season. A fluke injury - a broken bone in his left forearm, not the same shoulder injury that plagued his earlier career - knocked him out of the lineup three months into the season. Broken arms are kind of a freak accident at linebacker and rarely chronic problems: guys like James Laurinaitis, Thomas Davis, and DeMarcus Ware have each suffered broken arms recently and either played through it or had to sit out until it healed.
So let’s recap Anzalone’s injury history. A torn labrum in his right shoulder in 2013 that flared up again in 2015. A random broken left forearm in 2016. Beyond that, he’s fine medically; no documented concussions, no soft tissue injuries in his knees, no bone spurs in his feet. None of the typical recurring problems with linebackers. Anzalone has, so far as we can tell, just had bad luck, and the Saints are betting that his problems are behind him. It seems like a safe bet, though we should be cautious.
Alright, that’s taken up enough of your time. Let’s see what Anzalone actually did when he was on the field.
What I found in studying game film was that Anzalone is a linebacker worthy of an early third round pick. He moves really well in space and through traffic and loves contact. Anzalone is quick to engage blocking tight ends, halfbacks, and offensive linemen and frequently kept fighting up to the whistle. Check him out taking on an advancing blocker in this clip (Anzalone is #34, not the linebacker circled at the beginning):
Run blitz vs Option. Uses his speed to make the LG look foolish. Doesn't locate the ball, though. pic.twitter.com/QVIQ6QpkOV— steez tabor (@PlaguesFootball) April 28, 2017
You see that play strength again in this clip, when Anzalone (again, #34, not the linebacker highlighted at the start) takes on the fullback head-on but doesn’t give up the edge. You can see that Anzalone holding up forces the running back from bouncing outside and into the open field, instead cutting back inside and getting tackled for a short gain. These are the kinds of plays that Saints linebackers couldn’t make last year because they playing out of position (in Craig Robertson’s case) or banged up (like Dannell Ellerbe or briefly, James Laurinaitis).
Something else that is clear about Anzalone is that he’s got strong football instincts. He showed quick play recognition and reaction time on this run to the outside by, incidentally, new Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Anzalone knows where Kamara is going as soon as he takes the handoff and takes a great intercepting angle to tackle Kamara out of bounds, right before one of the Gators’ cornerbacks comes flying in to make sure Kamara goes down. The play in question:
This is another kind of play that Saints linebackers did not make last year. Robertson, the de facto starter after everyone got hurt and Stephone Anthony was demoted, looked good in his role as a penetrating tackler but did not have the sideline-to-sideline speed to defend the perimeter. Robertson was also a liability in pass coverage, struggling to compete at the catch point or limit yards gained after the catch.
That’s not necessarily a knock on Robertson because he was not expected to take on this large of a role. He was signed with the expectation of filling in as a reserve weakside linebacker and leading the special teams units, but instead had to switch positions to middle linebacker. With Anzalone starting in Robertson’s place at the weakside and free agent signee A.J. Klein manning the middle linebacker spot, Robertson can be more effective in his original role.
But there’s more to being a good linebacker than defending the run well. Anzalone earned his starting job on passing downs by backpedaling comfortably into coverage and continuing to show quick play recognition. He did a solid job disrupting timing routes on crossers through his zone and flipping his hips to run with opponents in man coverage.
Those quick read-and-react skills show up in this next clip, which features the first two snaps Anzalone played against Kentucky. On the first play of the game, Anzalone times his blitz well to run through the B-gap and crush Kentucky’s quarterback. On the next play he drops into his zone, sees the wide receiver screen developing, and hustles to make a tackle to set up a long third down.
So I think I have a good feel for what the Saints saw in Anzalone after watching half a dozen games. He’s a smart linebacker with size who can start in nickel sets (the Saints’ true base defense, not a 4-3 or 3-4) and chip in positive plays against both the run and the pass. Pairing Anzalone with Klein gives the Saints two reliable linebackers who won’t allow big plays while bringing the flexibility to cover or blitz on passing downs.
If he can stay healthy, expect Anzalone to seize a starting job and hold onto it. He’ll be one to watch.