Alex Anzalone didn’t take long to impress new teammate Demario Davis during the offseason.
The two Saints linebackers were running sprints in practice when Davis glanced over to his side.
“He was right there beside me,” Davis said. “I am not bragging on myself, but I know there ain’t too many linebackers running side by side with me. But he was right there, so I knew he was really gifted.”
Fast forward a few months — particularly the Saints’ past three games — and Anzalone continues to show just how gifted he is.
Anzalone, a third round draft pick out of Florida in 2017, has made highlight-reel plays in victories over Minnesota, the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati.
It started in Minnesota with a momentum-swinging tackle with P.J. Williams that jarred the ball loose from Vikings receiver Adam Thielen. Marshon Lattimore scooped it up to set up a touchdown.
A week later against the Rams, Anzalone showed off the athleticism that his teammates rave about to snag a Jared Goff pass out of the air to help set up a touchdown.
Then on Sunday against the Bengals, he almost beheaded Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton on a sack when he went untouched.
“I’m not strictly the linebacker with the cowboy collar that plays,” Anzalone said. “I feel like I’m an athlete that can make those plays. I’m more of an athletic type guy who can do multiple things.”
Anzalone rates his interception against the Rams as the best play among his trifecta the past three games.
“Just because it’s something that as linebackers we work on that all the time and the way I was able to get the ball from the position I was in and I took a step to the left and then cut back,” Anzalone said.
It was his first interception since his high school playing days at Wyomissing High School in Pennsylvania, where he garnered all-state honors as both a linebacker and a running back. He also excelled in lacrosse there, more proof of his athleticism.
“It’s just something God blessed me with,” Anzalone said.
He has a nose for the football, forcing two fumbles to go with his interception.
“He has real good instincts and I think that’s almost a must at that position, but it’s something that helps him tremendously,” coach Sean Payton said. “He has good ball skills. I think he plays in space very well.”
Of the 43 defensive plays the Saints defense had Sunday, Anzalone played 30 of them. That 70 percent rate was highest among the team’s linebackers and more than every player on defense except defensive end Alex Okafor, cornerbacks Eli Apple and Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams.
Anzalone welcomes the playing time, especially after playing just four games last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Shoulder injuries also plagued him in college, keeping him off the field time and time again at Florida. So for Anzalone, staying healthy has been just as important as wreaking havoc on defense.
“That’s been a main focus of mine,” Anzalone said. “I want to have a complete season and contribute so I’m staying on top of everything with my body. I feel like I have done a good job with that.”
And in the past three weeks, he’s made sure that folks noticed No. 47.
“I just want to do my part,” Anzalone said. “I think coaches do a good job putting us in good positions to make plays. I think that you just have to execute and the plays will come if you’re there. So just being (in) the right spot at the right time, making the right move at the right time is really what I credit that too.”
Is there another big play in the works for Sunday when the Saints play the Eagles?
“I hope so,” he said. “I hope so.”
The New Orleans Saints got more out of their 2017 draft class than any team should expect to get from one group of rookies.
The first four picks were just about perfect. Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara swept the NFL’s Rookie of the Year awards; Ryan Ramczyk established himself as one of the game’s best young tackles; and Marcus Williams turned in the best season a free safety has had in New Orleans in years.
And the fifth pick might have been able to make a similar impact if he hadn’t gotten hurt.
“There are some other players in that class, too, that we’re excited about,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said on the eve of training camp. “How does Alex come back from his injury?”
Alex would be Alex Anzalone, the linebacker the Saints plucked out of Florida with a third-round pick.
Anzalone, like the other four, opened the season as a starter, and he recorded 16 tackles, a sack and a pass defended before dislocating his shoulder early in a win over the Miami Dolphins in London on Oct. 1.
The shoulder — a joint he’d injured twice in college — is now repaired, a fix Anzalone fully believes will hold. He found out his injuries stemmed from the repair done on his shoulder when he first injured his shoulder as a freshman at Florida.
“It’s good to see him back out, obviously, being healthy,” fellow linebacker A.J. Klein said. “He was disappointed last year with his shoulder injury, and sometimes that’s just how the game goes. He’s obviously made a lot of strides since his rookie year.”
Anzalone returns to a linebacker picture that got even more crowded in the offseason. One week into training camp, he has taken most of his snaps behind free-agent prize Demario Davis, who can play either weakside or middle linebacker but has lined up almost exclusively at the Will, Anzalone’s natural position in the New Orleans defense.
That picture could still change; the Saints say their linebacker competition is still wide open.
“Everyone wants to start,” Anzalone said. “If we rotate, we rotate, and if you play, you play. You have to play your role and know where you can contribute.”
Anzalone’s best case for playing time during this training camp has been made when he’s matched up against Kamara, one of the best route-running backs in the NFL, in coverage during practice.
Kamara, who caught 81 passes for the Saints last year, has won his share of the battles, but Anzalone looks far from lost in coverage against his 2017 classmate. On the contrary, Anzalone has broken up passes to Kamara in each of the past three practices.
“Obviously, he’s a great player, a great route-runner and a mismatch on linebackers,” Anzalone said. “It gets you better.”
Anzalone’s sideline-to-sideline speed and ability in pass coverage has flashed two or three times per practice, not only in coverage against Kamara, but also dropping down the seam, where he has made plays on a daily basis against running backs and tight ends, including a highlight-reel interception in a 7-on-7 drill Monday.
“He’s extremely athletic. He’s long. I think … when we look at the college tape, you see a lot of linebackers playing in space, and he was one of those guys,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But he has good size and he’s smart, so those instincts I think are extremely valuable.”
Anzalone is the kid of the group of experienced linebackers competing for a starting role.
But he doesn’t feel like it. Already comfortable with the Saints’ scheme a season ago, Anzalone spent his rookie year learning that the rest of the NFL is not as complicated as it’s made out to be.
“Everyone runs the same type of stuff, it’s just a matter of different tweaks here and there that you do,” Anzalone said.
As a rookie, Anzalone often focused on his own role within the Saints’ defense; as a second-year player, he spends most of his time thinking about how the offense is trying to attack him.
“You learn a lot — not necessarily about what you’re doing, but more about what offenses are trying to do to you, how they’re trying to space you out, where their mismatches are, what adjustments you can make off of where you feel they have a mismatch,” Anzalone said.
Make all of those adjustments, and Anzalone can play even faster than his natural instincts allow.
And that might give him a chance to join the rest of his draft class as an impact playmaker for these Saints.