There was a rush to judgment among national media that the New Orleans Saints reached by drafting Stephone Anthony at the end of the first round.
The general consensus said it was too soon to draft the Clemson linebacker. They said he should have been available to the team in the second round. Saints coach Sean Payton, seemingly aware that people were going to say such things, took a preemptive strike against that thinking by explaining he thought there was going to be a run on inside linebackers early in the second round.
“There are a handful of guys that are going to get drafted early (on the second day of the draft) with how we had them stacked,” Payton said. “I think that’s going to happen. We’ll see a few more of those inside linebackers taken within the first 10 or 15 picks (in the second round).”
What Payton should have done instead is turned on the Clemson-Florida State game from last season, dropped the microphone and stepped down from the lectern as the video played. Once the film concluded, many of the doubters and critics would have had a different take on things.
Want a linebacker who can cover or play well in space?
Jump to the end of the first quarter, with about 4:50 left to play, and watch what happens.
As quarterback Sean Maguire, who was starting in place of Jameis Winston, takes his drop, Anthony drops into space over the middle. From his perch, he reads Maguire’s eyes and sees him targeting a running back coming out of the backfield toward the right side.
As Maguire locks in on the receiver, Anthony breaks to that side of the field to make a play. Anthony arrives in time but is never required to do anything since a defensive lineman bats down the pass. But the result doesn’t matter. The instincts Anthony showed on the play are what counts.
Not buying it? Go a little later in the game, when Anthony is in coverage on another player, tips the ball and forces an interception. He can cover both tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield.
It’s all there on film. Too often those traits weren’t on the Saints’ game film last season. Their linebackers often appeared vulnerable in pass coverage. As a whole, they were better against the run but lacked someone with sideline-to-sideline speed who could play in space and clean up when asked to clean up. Anthony appears to be that guy.
Those same instincts show up when Anthony is defending against the run, which is good news for a defense that was also vulnerable in this regard last season. He has the ability to quickly diagnose plays and possesses the speed to get where he needs to be. He also has the ability to jump from gap to gap to defend against the run.
Anthony showed his skill against the run a few times against Syracuse last season, once helping drop the ball carrier for a loss of yardage on a reverse. But it was his pass coverage that once again most impressed.
During the third quarter, Anthony read the quarterback and shaded him as he rolled out to the offensive right side of the formation. Lurking between the quarterback and his intended target, Anthony read the play, jumped and picked off the pass.
Another area where Anthony shines is against screen passes. While the whole Clemson defense struggled against Georgia running back Todd Gurley, several times Anthony was able to quickly diagnose and get down on the potential target before the pass was thrown.
While he didn’t post great sack numbers throughout his college career, this is another area where the linebacker showed potential. He has an explosive first step and knows how use his body to dip under or slide through blocks, which allows him to get into the backfield quickly. Once there, he has good finishing ability.
One of the few knocks on Anthony is that, at 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, he doesn’t always seem to play up to his size and could have some more violence to his game. Instead of taking on blocks, he often tries to step around them. He should improve as he learns better hand technique, and he could have a better understanding of how to defend against play action.
Overall, though, Anthony brings a lot of traits that once were not available to this linebacker group. He’ll need to prove he’s capable of learning the playbook and will need to beat out one of the veterans for a starting job, but it wouldn’t at all be a surprise if Anthony is on the field for the first snap of the season.
One-minute scouting report: LB Stephone Anthony
So far, so good
Solid in coverage: He has the ability to cover tight ends and does a good job sniffing out screen passes.
Sideline to sideline: With the speed to get around the field, he does a good job of cleaning up.
Run game: With a solid first step, he can successfully read run plays and fill gaps.
Blitzing: He appears to have the ability to blitz and get after the quarterback; he just didn’t do it much in college.
Play bigger: This is a big guy, but he doesn’t always play up to his size. He could be more imposing.
Hands: He needs to develop a better understanding of how to use his hands to get off blocks and get where he wants to be.