Gators in the NFL: Anzalone hopes shoulder fix unleashes his potential with Saints

New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) runs through drills during NFL football practice in Metairie, La., Tuesday, June 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

By Brett Martel
AP Sports Writer

METAIRIE, La. — Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone hopes he’s done seeing promising seasons snuffed out prematurely by his troublesome right shoulder.

“It was fixed really well this time,” Anzalone asserted after New Orleans’ offseason practice last week. “My shoulder dislocated, but it was fixed differently.”

If “differently” means better, Anzalone’s return could be a significant boon to a young defense that improved considerably during the Saints’ playoff run last season.

“We were really pleased last year, early in the year, when he was playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s smart. He’s someone that has good range. He can play on three downs. He’s someone who we think is a good player on third down. That gives you flexibility at linebacker.

“The key, for him, is just staying healthy.”

Twice during an unfulfilled career at Florida, the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Anzalone dislocated his right shoulder. Those injuries were major reasons why he played just 18 games in four seasons with the Gators. Yet, when he played, his talent was so apparent that the Saints used one of two 2017, third-round draft choices last year to select him.

That bet appeared to be paying off when Anzalone’s speed and ability to correctly read and quickly react to plays stood out during training camp, earning him a starting nod as a rookie in Week 1.

Four games into the season, however, Anzalone extended his right arm during a diving tackle attempt against Miami and the shoulder gave out — again. He landed on injured reserve, ending his season.

“It wasn’t anything too unfamiliar,” Anzalone said. He noted that his generally optimistic outlook on life, combined with his prior experience with shoulder rehabilitation, helped him deal with the injury.

“It was fine. I have a good attitude about life. My parents instilled that in me as a kid,” Anzalone said. “You feel bad for a little bit, and life goes on.”

Anzalone stands out on the field in part because of his long, blond hair that gives him a surfer-dude look. In reality, a visceral fear of sharks prevents the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, native from venturing out in the ocean very often.

Instead, he’s spent a lot of down time studying the game he loves.

“Staying in meetings after getting hurt was helpful,” Anzalone said. “Talking to the (veterans) and still learning, watching film and doing all that stuff was definitely beneficial.”

Anzalone was one of three rookie starters on the Saints’ defense last season, including cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who was the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Lattimore said he was impressed by the athleticism Anzalone brought to the linebacker position.

“He’s very versatile. He can hit you or he can cover you, so we’re going to get a great player back,” Lattimore said. “We missed him a little bit during the season, but now that he’s back, hopefully he’s 100 percent.”

Anzalone said he senses among his teammates and coaches that “there is a lot of expectation” for how he’ll contribute this season to a team with aspirations of Super Bowl contention.

He also subscribes to the notion that the Saints, given his injury, “took a chance on me, and I wanted to live up to that.”

But Anzalone said he has never felt overwhelmed by the transition to the NFL or the pressure to perform.

“A lot of it goes into how much you care about the game and how much you care about making mistakes and learning from your mistakes and continuing to grow,” he said.

Even during the first, voluntary, non-contact practices of this offseason, Anzalone said, he “has been a lot more comfortable than Year 1.

“I’m confident. I think I was confident last year,” Anzalone said. “You just do your best at what you’re asked to do. That’s really all there is to it. That’s kind of how I live my life.”