The New Orleans Saints will give Stephone Anthony a look with the starting defense. But his chances are slim.
Stephone Anthony is a solidly cautionary tale about the tendencies of amateur evaluation. After leading the team in tackles as a rookie and starting in every game, most fans had him pegged as a solid first-round pick. He was strong and athletic. He made some eye-popping plays in the run game and showed enough in the passing game to suggest that his limitations there could be overcome. But a second consecutive 7-9 season prompted a deep review of the New Orleans Saints strengths and weaknesses, and after a closer look Sean Payton and co. determined that Anthony hurt more than he helped as a MLB.
Many of the problems arose from an ability to properly command the defense. Anthony has all the physical tools, but the game is still too fast for him. And you can’t have that for the guy that has the headset in his helmet. A MLB needs to understand the nuances of formations. They need to properly align their defense to counteract the offense, and to do so in the split seconds before the snap. Anthony, for all the leadership traits he showed in college, was never cerebral enough to operate an NFL-level defensive scheme.
So the Saints decided to move him over to SLB. As a SLB, Anthony could run and hit. His assignment would be more simple, and he could just use his athleticism to make plays. Although SLBs don’t see the field as much as the other LB positions, fans all though Anthony would thrive in the role. It seemed perfect.
But again, the fans were wrong. Despite all the positive moments he showed as a run defender, he had too many bad tendencies. He was too susceptible to play action and misdirection, and was such a dire liability in pass coverage that his label changed.
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The Saints now have a new linebacker coach. Mike Nolan has taught some of the best linebackers in the league, and there’s some hope that he can turn Anthony’s career around. The problem for Anthony is that he doesn’t have much time to right the ship.
The Saints loaded up on defensive depth this offseason, at cornerback and linebacker, at safety and along the defensive line. There aren’t a huge amount of roster spots to go around. If Anthony can’t show that he belongs, he won’t be on the team come the regular season.
There isn’t much to gain by cutting Anthony. It wouldn’t save the Saints a penny in 2017. And while it would save them $2M+ in 2018, they could make that cut at the end of the year and get the same result. The problem is, Anthony hasn’t even shown that he deserves a roster spot.
Anthony’s biggest problem for cracking the roster is that he has yet to show any abilities on special teams. Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar, for example, project to be core special team players. Manti T’eo plays special teams. Alex Anzalone plays special teams. A.J. Klein plays special teams. Adam Bighill plays special teams. And Dannell Ellerbe is the only linebacker that’s pretty much guaranteed a starting spot, if he’s healthy.
Anthony’s one path to the roster is to crack a starting gig — or at least to show enough that the Saints decide to keep him on exclusively as a backup.
And for now, it looks like he’s getting just that shot.
Sean Fazende and others have reported that Anthony ran with the first team defense as a MLB in last week’s OTAs. Others, most notably ESPN’s Mike Triplett, gave the conflicting report that Anthony ran as an OLB.
I expect, over the course of the OTAs and training camp, Anthony will get a look at all three LB spots. He’s not very well suited to WLB, who’s duties more regularly include pass coverage. But if he can emerge as a candidate at MLB or SLB, he has a shot at the roster.
Unfortunately for him, the Saints have some fresh and intriguing blood at both positions.
If I had to make a “way-too-early” prediction, I’d say the favorites to start are Dannell Ellerbe, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone. Ellerbe is far and away this team’s best linebacker. IF he can stay healthy, he’s a starter. No doubt.
I think A.J. Klein is the next sure thing to start. The question is what position that’s at. The Saints may decide they like him better at SLB, and they do have T’eo as a secondary option. Craig Robertson is a solid option as well, but the Saints brought in Klein for a reason after riding Robertson for all of 2016.
Anzalone is a bit of a wildcard here. He’s probably more suiting for WLB, and if (when) Ellerbe does miss time, Anzalone is the favorite to slide over. He’s a rookie, so the transition may take some time for him.
And finally, the aforementioned Robertson. If Anthony can’t show that he’s a better backup option than Robertson, he may not have a spot left. If Adam Bighill can show enough to earn a special team’s spot (which I expect he will) then the Saints already have six linebackers on the roster without Anthony. Seven if you count T’eo. If Anthony doesn’t show enough to warrant a starting gig, I don’t see him on the roster in 2017. There just aren’t enough spots left.