The New Orleans Saints haven’t had enough time to figure out exactly what they have in Stephone Anthony.
Not in 15 padless practices.
A middle linebacker like Anthony can’t be properly evaluated until he’s fighting off offensive linemen and crashing into running backs.
But the early returns have been good. Working almost exclusively with the No. 2 unit during minicamp and organized team activities, Anthony picked up the defense quickly, made several plays in the passing game and often looked right at home moving at the NFL’s accelerated pace.
“I think the game, it’s not very fast for him,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s been really well-coached in college, he understands football, he loves football, so he’s learning at a very quick rate, and that’s awesome. That you can see with no pads on.”
Anthony arguably has to navigate the learning curve faster than any of the Saints’ other rookies.
Expected to compete for a starting role almost as soon as New Orleans tabbed him with the No. 31 pick, the Clemson product is playing a middle linebacker position that has to make all of the calls in Ryan’s defense. If a rookie’s going to wear the green dot on the back of his helmet, he has to know more than his own role.
Anthony also has to know what the rest of the defense is doing.
“You’ve got to control the huddle,” Anthony said. “You’ve got to show them that you’re not afraid, you’re not going to back down. You’ve got to be able to make plays; you’ve got to be willing to take chances.”
For that reason, Anthony has approached his rookie season by valuing knowledge of the scheme over playing with reckless abandon. A middle linebacker who knows where he’s headed has many more opportunities to be destructive.
“You definitely want to play with your head on fire,” he said. “But knowing what you do and how to do it, you can play 10 times faster.”
Anthony’s approach has paid dividends so far.
A rangy player, Anthony has looked at home running with tight ends down the field, but he has made most of his eye-catching plays when he’s asked to hover in a zone. Anthony reads the eyes of quarterbacks well, and he has shown good ball skills, intercepting at least one pass and batting down several others in the workout sessions open to the media this summer.
And the Saints’ veteran defenders have noticed Anthony’s ability to be a quick study. Fellow linebacker David Hawthorne, the primary obstacle between Anthony and the starting lineup after moving into the middle from the weak side this offseason, has been sufficiently impressed with his primary challenger, who has begun his NFL career by picking the brains of veterans like Hawthorne and fellow new addition Dannell Ellerbe.
“He’s a good kid with a good head on his shoulders,” Hawthorne said. “He’s picking up things well. He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s smart and he’ll be a good player in this league. He has a good feel for football, and that’s probably why we took him when we took him.”
As impressive as Anthony has been, coach Sean Payton has been quick to point out that his new linebacker still has plenty to improve upon once the team opens training camp in West Virginia at the end of July, and a player like Anthony still has to prove he can pack a punch.
Even in an NFL increasingly dominated by the passing game, linebackers often set the tone for the physicality of the defense, and New Orleans could use an added dose after finishing 31st in the league in total defense and 28th against the run last season.
Anthony feels comfortable in any role.
“I think it’s more natural (to defend both the run and the pass),” Anthony said. “What I see is what I attack.”
Evaluating a rookie linebacker might be impossible without pads, but Anthony’s new defensive coordinator remembers what he saw on film.
And Ryan is eagerly anticipating the chance to unleash his new linebacker in training camp.
“I think when the pads go on, you’ll start hearing him out there, too,” Ryan said. “He’s a big hitter.”