METAIRIE, La. -- Unfortunately, the news that the New Orleans Saints have shipped linebacker Stephone Anthony out of town comes as little surprise. He was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a fifth-round draft choice.
The 31st pick in the 2015 draft barely played last season and appeared to be on the roster bubble this summer while missing most of the preseason with an ankle injury. It was practically an upset when he cracked the 53-man roster (though it now appears likely the Saints wanted to continue seeking a trade partner rather than releasing him outright).
But Tuesday’s news is still a huge disappointment for the Saints -- another wasted draft pick and more unrealized potential for a defense that has so badly needed talent upgrades in recent years.
It’s reminiscent of the Saints giving up on cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, among others in recent years. Jean-Baptiste, a second-round draft pick, was released in his second season. Hicks, a third-round pick, was traded during his fourth season to the New England Patriots for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
Now, I’m not predicting Anthony will turn into the same kind of breakout player that Hicks has become with the Chicago Bears (he just signed a four-year, $48 million extension).
But who knows? The Saints have struggled so mightily on defense throughout Anthony’s three-year tenure that maybe the change of scenery is the spark he needs.
Saints veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan -- who is a team captain and is by far the best player on New Orleans’ defense -- expressed his disappointment with the trade on Twitter:
— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) September 19, 2017
A fifth-round pick isn't bad under the circumstances, considering Anthony's stock had dipped so low and it seemed like New Orleans might release him for nothing a couple weeks ago. But it's obviously a far cry from what it cost to acquire him in the first place (a first-round draft pick the Saints received as part of the trade that sent Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks).
I’m not sure what the Saints should have done differently with Anthony.
He was clearly at his best when playing middle linebacker, his college position. He started all 16 games there as a rookie in 2015 and led the Saints with 112 tackles.
But that was also the year the Saints' defense set NFL records for most touchdown passes allowed in a season and highest opponent passer rating. Anthony had a lot to do with that as the “quarterback” of the defense, who called signals and wore the communication device to relay plays from the sideline.
The Saints tried moving him to strongside linebacker last season so he didn’t have to do as much thinking, but it didn’t take. Neither did his temporary move to weakside linebacker this summer.
"He's explosive, he's disruptive and yet his key-and-diagnose and his instincts at times are off," Saints coach Sean Payton said in a blunt and candid assessment of Anthony last year. "It's run, and he's dropping back in a pass mode. Or it's pass, and he's at the line of scrimmage. His ability to see and diagnose some very simple reads, for instance, are the keys for him getting better.
"That's been the thing that's kept him back. And quite honestly, it's kept him back on special teams [too]. Because a player like him who is on special teams, if he's covering a kick or covering a punt, generally a guy that can run and hit shows up. And he's been, I would say, just OK in that area."
Whether you blame Anthony, blame the coaches for not developing him properly or blame the personnel department for missing on the precious first-round draft pick, it’s a failure regardless.
And it’s one of far too many in recent years.