“The number you have reached is temporarily unavailable or no longer in service.” If you’ve ever gotten that recorded message before, then you know how frustrating and absolutely nerve-wracking even, that it can be.
Now imagine that very same level of frustration multiplied times a hundred, when thinking about the indisputable pure talent that’s possessed by now-4th year New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone — who because of nagging injuries that continually keeps him off the football field — practically never gets to show anyone the impact he potentially could have, since he can’t ever stay healthy long enough to actually prove it.
Anzalone seemingly has always possessed the undeniable talent, skill-set, and high motor necessary to become a top-caliber defender at the LB position in the NFL, but the question ever since he arrived in NOLA 3 years ago remains:
Can he ever stay healthy long enough and over an extended period of time, in order for that to happen?
Undoubtedly Anzalone’s future with the Saints beyond this season, will likely hinge largely upon that eventually taking place and coming to fruition.
The 25-year old former University of Florida stand-out will be in the final season of the original 4-year deal that he signed with the Black and Gold as a rookie, and if he has any legitimate hopes of securing a new deal that will give him an opportunity to further his professional career either with the Saints or another NFL team in Free Agency next off-season, then he must stay on the field this season. Period.
Quite honestly, no one can deny that when he isn’t hurt and has had his previous chances to shine in the rather brief snippets of play that we’ve seen from him, the young Wyomissing, Pennsylvania native has been solid for New Orleans, with the potential to even become one of the better LB’s in the entire NFL.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 4, 2018
Indisputably, Anzalone has the range and the speed to play any of the three linebacker positions for the Saints: the middle, the weak side or on the strong side in the team’s 4-3 defensive scheme employed by Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
After the Saints signed fellow LB (and 2019 1st team NFL All-Pro) Demario Davis in the off-season two years ago in 2018 NFL Free Agency, the original plan by then-Saints LB coach Mike Nolan was to put him at the middle / “Mike” spot and keep Anzalone at the weak side / “Will” position.
Davis had served primarily as an middle linebacker during his first six NFL seasons with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, but because of Anzalone’s inability to ever stay healthy for any extended length of time, Nolan and Allen were essentially forced to put Davis at the weak side in their 4-3 alignment.
As noted by ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett, the Saints have been fortunate that Davis has since turned out to be a great fit at the weak side / “Will” position with Anzalone out of the line-up, since the 30-year old is adept at chasing down runners in the open field and blitzing on occasion.
Triplett further added that with Anzalone watching on from the sidelines, Davis has performed well and excelled in pass coverage against running backs and tight ends, which he has admitted in past interviews was a weakness of his earlier in his career.
So where does that leave Anzalone heading into this upcoming season, you might ask?
Very clearly, it means that the former Florida Gator is at a critical juncture of his entire football career at this point.
A former 5-star linebacker coming out of high school, Anzalone potentially can be a great help alongside Davis at controlling the outside edges for Allen’s variation of the 4-3 defensive alignment, while the head-hunting leader of the Saints LB corps locks down the middle of the field.
But since Davis has excelled since moving over to the weakside and also because both Anzalone and Davis are versatile enough to play any of the three LB spots. the thought is that Anzalone will man the middle / “Mike” spot for at least this season, as the Saints slowly bring along and develop rookie Zack Baun.
However, Baun is yet another immensely talented player at the LB position now for New Orleans, and Anzalone will need to have a stellar season in the upcoming months ahead, to prove his overall value and worth to the Saints defense; and if not for them then perhaps with some other NFL team starting next season in 2021.
Because the Saints have the versatility within their LB corps to adequately compensate for Anzalone’s absence should he get hurt again, it makes his availability (or a lack thereof) a priority for him in the weeks and months ahead.
Back-ups Craig Robertson and Kiko Alonso are both capable of filling in at any of the positions that Anzalone can, and with the rookie Baun expected to push for a significant role in his very 1st NFL season; it means that Anzalone has to find a way to avoid the injury-prone status that for all intents and purposes, has continually threatened to END his whole entire football career.
Anzalone certainly has the outstanding and at-times breath-taking athleticism, along with the cerebral aptitude that’s needed to quickly read and recognize pass coverage responsibilities.
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Without question, Anzalone has the clear-cut capability to play in the deep middle of the field in what’s referred to as a “Cover 2 zone coverage”, an alignment that Allen and the Saints defensive coaching staff like to utilize quite often (and probably a lot more frequently than other NFL teams that choose to employ a similar concept).
When he is fully healthy, there isn’t any doubt whatsoever that Anzalone unequivocally has the talent and perhaps most importantly — the quickness and superb closing speed to effectively man underneath zones and prevent gains on short passing routes by opposing RB’s and TE’s — as brilliantly noted by Canal Street Chronicles film analyst Andrew Bell in this outstanding breakdown of Anzalone’s capabilities (when healthy) from a few months ago.
Thus far in 3 NFL seasons, Anzalone has recorded 82 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles, 3 passes defensed, 8 QB “hits” and 5 tackles for loss during his time in NOLA. However because of recurring injury issues, Anzalone has only appeared in 22 out of the 48 games that the Saints have actually played since his arrival in the 2017 NFL Draft, with 11 starts.
Anzalone missed all but just two of the Saints’ 16 regular season games during the 2019 Season last year, with a shoulder injury. As a matter of fact, Anzalone has played in over five total games or more during any NFL season, only just once thus far for the Black and Gold during the course of his three years in New Orleans.
Sadly, the closest thing to a full season that the former Florida Gator sensation has played was in 2018, where he played well enough in his 487 regular season snaps to be recognized by the good folks over at Pro Football Focus as one of the highest graded players at his position. On those snaps, he posted an overall grade of 70.5 and (perhaps surprisingly) only allowed 8.1 yards per reception on the passes that were thrown at his direction in pass coverage.
It’s for that very reason, why the current talk surrounding Anzalone has been nothing short of encouraging this off-season. In fact, new Saints linebacker coach Michael Hodges (who replaced former LB coach Mile Nolan after he left to become the new defensive coordinator for Dallas) has openly “gushed” over the prospect of having a potentially healthy Anzalone fully available for all 16 regular season games for the upcoming 2020 NFL Season.
“There is a potential that he hasn’t even come close to reaching, which is exciting. I’m confident that he’s going to be better than he’s ever been,” Hodges told WWL Radio’s Steve Geller.
“Just the videos I’ve seen and the conversations that I’ve had; he looks outstanding and he tells me how good he feels,” bragged Hodges. “I think he’s over a hump, where he is going to extend his career to that 18-year-career that he should have. Hopefully, staying on the field healthy.”
Despite Hodges’ optimism however, the proverbial “jury remains out” on whether or not Anzalone will actually be able to remain on the football field long enough, to ultimately see that happen.
One of the team’s total of three 3rd Round selections (along with RB Alvin Kamara and DE Trey Hendrickson) in that previously-mentioned famous 2017 Saints draft class, the biggest knock on the 6-foot-3, 241 pound Anzalone has always been an entire series of injury problems, specifically recurring shoulder issues.
— SEC Country Florida (@SECCountryUF) December 28, 2016
In college back during his time in the SEC, Anzalone spent most of his freshman season with Florida in 2013 dealing with a torn labrum injury to his shoulder. Then two seasons later, he had to redshirt only after just two games as a junior in 2015 because of complications from that very same shoulder injury that he initially had suffered as a freshman.
Finally given a chance to start for the Gators as a redshirt junior in 2016, Anzalone made 53 tackles, three sacks and four tackles for loss in eight games before ending up hurt yet again; and that particular time around with a broken arm that sidelined him in his final four collegiate games.
Anzalone then decided to leave school and forgo a possible redshirt senior season, but as a direct result of all of those variety of injuries, Anzalone’s draft stock took a major hit among college scouts and NFL front-office personnel talent evaluators. That ultimately caused him to slip into the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL draft, and the Saints then ended up selecting him with the 76th overall selection.
Now as the Saints move forward with their preparations for the upcoming season beginning at the end of next month, this will be a critical time for Anzalone and whatever possible future he still might have wearing the Black and Gold.
Make no mistake about it: he MUST remain healthy if he is to have a future in New Orleans, much less anywhere else in the NFL.
For the most part, it’s been a case of “service unavailable” for the team and organization when it comes to calling the number of Alex Anzalone for the past 3 years — and if he has any hopes of remaining in the sport of Pro Football — then there’s no doubt whatsoever that remaining healthy is key to his future….
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius