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Kaden Elliss has emerged after waiting for opportunity with New Orleans Saints

'I've been very eager for the opportunity to get to go out and show what I can do'

New Orleans Saints players in action during their 2022 Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
New Orleans Saints players in action during their 2022 Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Based on the smile perpetually gracing Kaden Elliss’ face, you'd never know a wisp of frustration may have visited the eternally optimistic linebacker. Not for long, though, because Elliss' faith won't allow it.

"The word of God says, 'Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything through prayer and petition, present your requests before God and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your mind and heart in Christ Jesus our Lord,'" the New Orleans Saints' four-year veteran said. "Faith is No. 1 for me, my relationship with God is No. 1.

"Honestly without Him, I would have been pretty frustrated. The year after (tearing) my ACL (as a rookie in 2019), I didn't feel like myself. And the role I was given as a special teamer (in '20), I was like, right now, this sucks but this right now is where I'm at, and I'm going to work to get better.

"Last year, I felt like, man, I could really help this defense, I could be a great player in this league. But at the end of the day, it just wasn't my time to get on the field and show it yet.

"This year, kind of the same thing, I'm on a great roster with such great pass rushers and great linebackers, and such a great scheme that D.A. (Coach Dennis Allen) has – it favors a lot of DBs because we need guys out there that can cover and give the up front the time to get there. And I understand all that. But at the end of the day, I just had to trust God. Through this, I've just been trying to trust His plan, and know that you'll get a shot, just keep working and trust that I've got you."

Elliss' shot for the Saints (4-7) has come, and entering Sunday's game against San Francisco at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., he has taken advantage.

With 3.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a pass defensed and 23 tackles in the last three games – including a career-high 11 tackles in New Orleans' 27-20 victory over the Rams last Sunday – Elliss is playing his best when New Orleans needs him the most.

Linebacker Pete Werner is out with an ankle injury and Elliss, whose 4.5 sacks is a career high and third most on the team, has been more than capable as a fill-in.

"Five-five's probably been, for the last couple of years, the best-kept secret in the NFL," linebacker Demario Davis said, referring to Elliss by his jersey number, 55. "We knew what type of player he was and now he's getting that opportunity and he's showing it to the world.

"I don't know if anybody is shocked when they watch it in our building, I'm sure he's shocking a lot of people who didn't know. But just give it time, he's going to be on everybody's radar."

It's understandable, though, if Elliss seemingly appeared from nowhere.

After tearing his ACL during his rookie season, Ellis, the second of two seventh-round picks by the Saints (No. 244 overall), rebounded slowly. He mainly was a special team player his first three seasons, with one sack, a tackle for loss and 17 tackles on defense. He has 38 tackles, six quarterback hits and three tackles for loss this season.

"I felt like a really great athlete coming out of college (at Idaho), and then after having my ACL, to be honest, I didn't have the Adrian Peterson type of story where I came back immediately quick, rapid," he said. "It took me quite a long time to feel like myself again, really up until last year, to feel like the athlete that I once was speed-wise and agility.

"And then this year, they brought in some really awesome strength staff – (Saints director of sports science) Dr. (Matt) Rhea, (strength coach) Matt Clapp – and they really helped me this offseason, as well as just putting in work myself to increase my speed and explosiveness and agility.

"Those were areas that talking to D.A., talking to (co-defensive coordinator) Coach (Ryan) Nielsen, (linebackers coach Mike) Hodges, our scouting department, I knew I had to work on to be the type of guy that they could trust to put on the field. I worked hard and God's just allowed me to reap some reward right now. I'm thankful. I know I have more work to do, because I'm not done as a player, but it's been exciting to get to go out and show what some of the work I've put in up to this point has been."

Elliss also needed to work on becoming an effective player in space, a skill he didn't necessarily need to polish in college.

"That was something that was specifically discussed in the offseason, and I think that's an area that he has improved," Allen said. "Look, we've all got a lot of different areas that we've got to be better at. The trick is to just continually try to work on the things that you can to improve your game. If you do that, then when you get called upon and you get opportunities, you go out and produce and help the team."

Elliss said he played a lot of defensive end and linebacker at Idaho, and primarily was a pass rusher.

"And I had some experience off the ball, but not to the extent that really you need to be a great inside linebacker in the NFL," he said.

"And so, my eyes, that was something that Coach Hodges worked with me since he was the assistant, before he took over the lead role (in '20). He's helped me and built cut-ups for me, just found ways to help me so that as you see the formation, as you see the play happening, where your eyes are supposed to be, what you have to see peripherally, that was something I had to grow at. And I'm sure I still do. There's always more work to be done."

At 6 feet 3, 238 pounds, Elliss' work has been obvious.

So, too, has the improvement that put him in position to be ready when the opportunity was presented.

"Since I've been here, I've been on one of the most dominant defenses in the league," he said. "I've gotten to play with such amazing players, gotten to play for such amazing coaches. The talent has just been through the roof, the experience. Every year I've been here, it's been a team with aspirations to be champions, not just divisional but Super Bowl champions, and the roster has always been there.

"So I understood kind of the position that I was in – a late-round pick with promise. I've always known I've had the ability to play well and to do great things in this league, but I also was kind of forced to look at myself and really have to critique these last few years. D.A., Hodges, (former linebackers coach Mike) Nolan, all the great coaches that have been around have been able to help me in that. And so this year, I felt primed, I felt ready to go, I felt the holes in my game that maybe were once there, were either minimized or gone.

"I've been very eager for the opportunity to get to go out and show what I can do, to go out and help this team win, to go out and just play the game that I love to play and try to give glory to my God in doing it, and bless the name on my back in doing it, and the entire city of New Orleans."

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