Unlike the other second-year players we have covered thus far, Stephone Anthony played and started in all 16 games as a rookie. The 31st overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft wasted no time securing a key role in the middle of the defense.
At Clemson, he was a team captain his senior year, starting every game at middle linebacker for the Tigers. He was in charge of getting guys organized and in position. He often found himself in excellent position too, becoming a highly productive player and leader on his own despite being overshadowed by bigger names over the years like Vic Beasley, Sammy Watkins, and Tajh Boyd.
Over the course of his college career, Stephone Anthony recorded 255 total tackles, 33.5 for a loss, 9.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, three interceptions, and eight pass break-ups. He never missed a game in his four-year career, playing in 52 games total.
It’s hard to watch his college highlights and not become giddy.
Despite this, Anthony flew under the radar for much of his senior season, with his popularity spiking during offseason showcases like the Senior Bowl, Pro Day, and the NFL Combine. It was there that he separated himself from the pack as an elite athletic specimen who also possessed exceptional football skills.
In college, he was touted for his ability to play sideline-to-sideline and attack running lanes downhill. His coverage skills were raw, but his 4.5 speed indicated that he could excel in that area with the right coaching.
When Saints defensive coaches went to the Clemson Pro Day, they were smitten with the 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker, and they did not make a secret of it. He provided the total package of athleticism, production, and a lunch-pail, hard-hat leadership that was so desperately needed in a locker room that lacked it after an abysmal 2014 campaign.
Many mock drafts had the Saints taking Stephone Anthony with their 2nd Round pick at 44th overall, but the Saints proved their love by taking him with the extra first rounder they acquired from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade.
Tasked with being the main signal caller on defense as a rookie, Anthony hit the ground running.
Overall, Stephone Anthony had a solid rookie season. He started all 16 games, made appearances on special teams, and racked up 112 total tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, and one interception.
He made his presence felt.
John DeShazier of the New Orleans Saints, broke down a few of Stephone Anthony’s big rookie season plays.
Statistically, it looks very nice, but the weaknesses he had in college appeared as a pro. Anthony’s rookie season was not without growing pains.
For much of the season, the defense was plagued by breakdowns due to miscommunications, missed assignments, and misalignments. Plenty of blame was deservedly placed on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan who was fired mid-season, but Anthony deserves a share of the criticism as well.
At times you could see that he was thinking too much on plays: getting lost in zone coverage, shooting the wrong gap, or being caught flat-footed. Periodically, he would show flashes, but if he was to be the commander of the defense, he would have to do a lot of growing up.
Many fans were hoping for Anthony to burst onto the scene like Jonathan Vilma did when he was acquired in 2008. Instead, he played like a faster Curtis Lofton in that he was producing statistically, but hurting the team on the field at times.
I promise that is not meant to be as scathing as it may seem.
If Anthony’s struggles were not real, then the Saints would not have signed veteran James Laurinaitis to play middle linebacker and shifted Anthony to the strong side.
Stephone Anthony’s future lies in the middle of the defense, and he could be very good there, but if we are being honest, he is not likely to reach the same level as Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, or Derrick Johnson. His instincts and awareness are solid, but not (yet?) exceptional.
That being said, the position switch could be exactly what he needs to take the next step in his development and begin unlocking the absurd amount of potential he has.
Playing on the strong side, Anthony will not have to worry about getting his teammates in position. He will be able to focus on just his task.
Better yet, he will be able to play to his strengths.
As I said earlier, Stephone Anthony is excellent playing the run game as a downhill attacker. He will not have to drop in coverage as much, meaning he will have more opportunities to blitz and stuff plays in the backfield.
He is what Saints fans and coaches hoped Martez Wilson would be.
Assuming Laurinaitis can reclaim some of his former glory and the defensive line play will improve, Anthony should be able to surpass the benchmarks he set in his rookie season. Playing on the same side as Cam Jordan on most snaps will work wonders for most players, but few have the skill set of Stephone Anthony.
If the defense is going to take a step forward under Dennis Allen in his first full season as defensive coordinator, the young players need to step up. If Stephone Anthony is truly the future of this defense, then he must be the first one to take the next step.