"He's around the ball."
"Certainly can be a leader."
"He's really done a good job of getting acclimated to our system."
"He's pretty mature. Ready for the competition, ready for the opportunity."
These are all quotes from New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton about Stephone Anthony. Anthony, who was the 31st person selected in the most recent NFL Draft (the pick the Saints received for Jimmy Graham), is only the 22nd inside linebacker drafted in the first round in the last 20 years. But that list of linebackers selected in the first round is impressive, with players such as Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis (who Anthony called an idol of his), Luke Kuechly and Jonathan Vilma. Bleacher Report's draft expert Matt Miller (who has a working relationship with Vilma) actually pointed out that the Saints "drafted a player that can do the things [Vilma] did when he played there."
Anthony is quite the physical specimen. It doesn't take mental gymnastics to see that the 6-foot-3, 243-pound linebacker from Clemson University is physically capable of dominating the league. Anthony intercepted a pass on the last play of the Orange Bowl, clinching the win for the Clemson Tigers, the kind of moment kids dream of when throwing the football around on the streets where they were born.
When I talked to Anthony during a training camp session, he repeatedly mentioned "embracing" the trials of being a pro player, explaining how he is hoping to meet the challenge of being an NFL player head on. "He's been working really hard with [assistant coaches] Joe [Vitt] and James [Willis]," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "You know, he's really looking good. And he loves football, so he's a guy we expect to win a job."
Anthony grew up in Polkton, North Carolina, and attended Anson High School. He was a multi-sports star in high school, playing catcher in baseball and power forward in basketball. He was a 5-star recruit according to Rivals.com, and was ranked as the third best outside linebacker heading to college. At Clemson, Anthony recorded 131 tackles as a junior, along with four sacks and an interception. His coach, Brent Venables, said about Anthony, "He wants to be great…I watch him in the meetings. The notes he takes. The questions he asks. The ownership of mistakes that he makes in practice and how he's coaching those other players. He's out there with his hair on fire every day, all day." Anthony's sincerity in this process is what sticks out most. These habits are grounded in his desire to help his team win and help his teammates be in position to make winning plays. While at Clemson, Anthony said, "I'm trying to be myself and make everybody around me better. I'm just trying to be contagious and trying to help us win football games."
Anthony was invited to the NFL Draft, but instead was with friends and family in North Carolina. His mom cooked, and during the press conference he said he was in "daddy mode" during the draft (Anthony has a daughter). Anthony has taken that humble go-to-work approach to the game. Payton said of Anthony during mini-camp, "There's an installation each day or every other day, and there have been some real good plays and some plays where he'll go back, watch it on film and try to make the corrections." Anthony has all the tools required to be a superstar inside linebacker. And unlike some, he is ready to do the work to get to that level. As Anthony himself said, "I embrace the challenge…I'm looking forward to it. It's part of the game and it's your job now. You've just got to take it head on and do the best you can." The rest of the league may just have to embrace that fact.