Saints rookie Alex Anzalone takes first step toward NFL success

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Despite a college career marred by injuries, Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone has made it to the NFL.

The 6-foot-3 linebacker drafted by New Orleans with the 76th pick in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft played in his first career NFL game Thursday as the Saints took on the Cleveland Browns.

The rookie from the University of Florida managed to record three tackles in his NFL debut.

“It was good,” Anzalone said regarding his performance. “I’ll watch the film and see what I need to get better at. I’m sure there was a lot of things that I could improve on, so we’ll see what the film looks like (Friday). But I felt comfortable out there just doing my job and trying to make plays when I can.”

Throughout Anzalone’s college career, he dealt with multiple shoulder injuries and a broken forearm that cut short his final season at Florida. He recorded just two tackles in 10 games as a true freshman for the Gators despite struggling with a shoulder injury.

As a junior in 2015, Anzalone had the opportunity to start, but after suffering another shoulder injury in the second game of the season, he was redshirted.

Last season, he started in the Gators’ first eight games and collected 53 tackles, but the forearm break sidelined him for the final four games and Florida’s bowl game. Even with the setbacks, Anzalone decided it was time to move to the next level.

Despite the injuries, Anzalone impressed scouts and became a second day draft pick. Now, he is battling for significant playing time as a rookie. An early comfort level with Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s scheme is helping his cause.

“Yeah, I think it’s because there’s a lot of carryover from college from Coach Allen’s defense,” Anzalone said of this confidence during Thursday’s game, “and just being here, doing OTAs, doing minicamp, doing — now training camp — I think that’s helped (me) progress as a player and knowledge of the game and everything like that. I still have a lot to get better at, so it’s going well now — just got to keep improving.”

Anzalone is a versatile player who has worked at all three linebacker positions, and his ability to learn quickly is something that his coaches appreciate.

After the game against the Browns, Anzalone thought he would be able to learn and take away information from his first pro game experience.

“I think that the biggest thing is that you just have to focus on your technique because you’re going to get tired, especially this being the first game,” he said. “You’re going to get a little winded being out there for a longer series than you would at practice, so I think just that — focusing on your technique when you have man-to-man coverage or you’re blitzing or anything like that. So I think that’s one thing that I took away from it.”

With the first preseason game under his belt, Anzalone will look to continue to compete for playing time in the upcoming season with the Saints.

“For me personally, I just try to do my best,” Anzalone said. “I mean, (Thursday) was a big day for me as far as going real-life football. It’s not about practice or anything like that. As a group, I think everyone is competing for the starting jobs and it’s shaking itself out, and we’ll see what happens.”

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