Sometimes, the case presents as false advertising and sometimes, you get exactly what you thought you might be getting.
Place New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone in the latter category.
“He was a good player in college, as we all well know,” linebackers coach Mike Nolan said. “And he was also a versatile player in college, which is what he’s been for us.
“Sometimes you’ll say they’re versatile in college and then they get to you and it’s like, ‘This is the one thing you give him.’ But Alex has retained that versatility in his play and it’s not just because of his athleticism but it’s also, he’s a very intelligent person. He picks things up fast and we’ve been pleased.”
It’d be nit-picky to not be pleased with a linebacker who likely is the most versatile one on the roster, who followed an injury-shortened rookie season with a highly impactful second one.
After 16 tackles, a sack and a pass defensed in four games as a rookie, Anzalone broke out with 59 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, six quarterback hits and two passes defended while playing all 16 regular-season games in 2018.
Chalk some of that up to the fact that he was healthy.
“Probably the most important thing for Alex is that he stayed healthy all season, and knock on wood, that continues,” Nolan said. “If it does, obviously, he just gets better and better.”
“I think that jump from Year 1 to Year 2 did help,” Anzalone said. “But I think that Year 1, I was comfortable, too. So it’s hard to say, if I had played the full year in Year 1, it would have maybe not seemed as big of a jump. But just staying healthy even is a jump.”
But, too, attribute a portion of it to his ability to be an every-down defensive player.
“Alex wears more hats than anybody else we have at the linebacker position,” Nolan said. “He plays all three positions, and he’ll practice at two of the three. A lot of times, guys will back up at another position but they don’t get much reps at it, they just kind of stay on top by studying. Whereas Alex has had to do all three positions, and he’s done a really good job with it. I think his growth has been good.”
The growth was most notable over the final 10 regular-season games. Anzalone forced game-altering fumbles against Minnesota and Atlanta, intercepted a pass against the Rams, had all six of his quarterback hits and both of his sacks during that stretch. And Nolan had no reservations about lining him up wherever he could be most effective.
“The more you can do, right?” Anzalone said.
“If you’re a first-, second- and third down linebacker, you can do well in the league. The first- and second-down linebackers are kind of phasing out a little bit and hopefully that’s good for me, and it keeps going in that direction. But being able to play all three downs is something I take pride in.”
That, and the ability to produce big plays for a Saints defense that found its footing as the season progressed and became a strength down the stretch last season.
“I think a lot of times as a football player, even playing defense, you can’t necessarily ‘try’ to make plays, you’ve got to let them come,” Anzalone said. “Early on in the year, they weren’t necessarily coming my way – just the plays, making those splash plays. And then I started to get going. Those are the plays you want to make, especially in big games.”