There was something infectious about Joe Vitt.
His energy, his passion, how he approaches his job -- after meeting the Saints linebackers coach, Stephone Anthony knew he wanted to play for him.
“He’s a coach that’s going to get after you, and he’s intense,” the Clemson product said. “That’s got to be a fun guy to play for, you know? Because I’ve been coached that way for the past four years.”
Now Anthony will be given that chance after being selected by New Orleans with the 31st pick in the draft. The selection came after the Saints picked up Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat with the 13th selection in the draft.
By selecting Anthony, New Orleans adds to its depth at the linebacker position after parting ways with Curtis Lofton earlier this offseason. While he has the versatility to play both inside positions, Saints coach Sean Payton said he will likely figure into the mix at Mike linebacker.
At the owners meetings in March, Payton said that the plan was to have David Hawthrone play Mike linebacker, with Dannell Ellerbe at Will linebacker.
The perception from here is that was one of the team’s greatest needs entering the draft. The Saints have many downhill players, but lack someone with plus-coverage skills at that position. Anthony could potentially prove to be that kind of player, while also bringing the downhill element.
When speaking with the media after his selection, he cited his athleticism and ability to cover as some of his best traits.
“Definitely my athleticism, my ability to play in space and play in coverage, being able to cover tight ends and cover backs, play downhill between the tackles,” Anthony said.
The Saints showed interest in Anthony early in the draft process by meeting with him at the scouting combine and then again at his Pro Day. Immediately the Saints fell in love with his skills. He did not require a private workout or any rechecks.
“He checked off all the boxes,” coach Sean Payton said.
The 6-foot-3, 243-pound Anthony has proven production. He was demoted midway through his sophomore season, but came back strong as a junior, recording 86 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, and four sacks. He continued on that path as a senior, finishing the year with 75 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, and 2.5 tackles.
While Anthony did not have many sacks, he was one of the most efficient linebackers in college football when rushing the passer. He rushed the quarterback 51 times, reaching him on 13 occasions to cause a hurry, hit or sack, according to Pro Football Focus. His efficiency rating was the fourth-highest among linebackers.
When asked if he feels he could be even more productive in this area if given the opportunity in the NFL, Anthony was confident he could.
“Definitely, definitely,” he said. “It’s always going to require work and you have to learn from things and go get them.”
One of the things, beyond his production, that drew the Saints to Anthony was his character. After talking to him, Payton walked away impressed with his ability to lead a huddle and his intelligence.
“We loved the make-up. He’s sharp. He’s the leader of their defense. When you talk to Brent Veneble, who is the head coach there, or anyone back there, his name comes up in five seconds,” Payton said. “Then the production on the film was good. Then when you look at the combine numbers, when you look at his size. Some of those things separated him in a group that we felt was really good.”
While some felt Anthony could be had in the second round, the Saints believed they would have missed out on him if they waited. He was the guy they had to have.
“There are a handful of guys that are going to get drafted early tomorrow 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.”
Eventually Anthony will get work and begin the process of trying to lock down a starting job. Right now, though, he’s taking this all in.
“Oh man, I barely could get any words out,” Anthony said. “I immediately got emotional. It’s a dream come true for me, something I always dreamed of as a kid, to get that phone call and see my name come across the screen. It was surreal.”