Stephone Anthony, David Hawthorne will vie to become next QB of Saints' D

METAIRIE, La. -- Being a rookie won’t prevent Stephone Anthony from becoming the “quarterback” of the New Orleans Saints' defense.

Then again, being a 30-year-old veteran won’t prevent David Hawthorne from earning that job, either.

Those two are the prime candidates to replace Curtis Lofton as the “Mike” inside linebacker and signal-caller for the Saints’ defense. And both drew praise from coaches Sean Payton and/or Rob Ryan on Saturday during the team’s rookie minicamp.

Anthony is the more exciting choice of the two since he’s younger, more athletic and offers the intrigue of more dynamic playmaking ability than the Saints have gotten out of that position group in recent years. The 6-foot-3, 243-pounder became the first linebacker drafted by the Saints in Round 1 or 2 during the Payton era when the Saints drafted him with the 31st pick this year.

“I think this guy’s a special guy. He’s one we identified as the best inside 'backer in the draft, and we’re excited about him,” Ryan said of Anthony, who had 221 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions over the past two seasons at Clemson, then ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds at the scouting combine (tied for third among all linebackers and defensive linemen).

Just as important, Anthony spent the past two years relaying signals and lining up his teammates -- which he’s also been doing during this weekend’s rookie minicamp.

“He’s really smart. He loves football. And everything we’ve put at him, he’s run like he’s run it a million times,” said Ryan, who noted a rookie has called signals for his defense before -- Kirk Morrison with the Oakland Raiders in 2005.

Anthony’s college defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, recently raved about Anthony's leadership abilities. And former college teammate Tavaris Barnes, who signed with the Saints as an undrafed free agent, also talked him up. When asked by The New Orleans Advocate about Anthony’s leadership, Barnes said, “I believe that’s why he was a first-round pick.”

To earn that defensive QB role, however, Anthony will have to beat out Hawthorne, who is currently penciled in as the new Mike linebacker after playing the Will spot the past three seasons in two different defensive systems under Ryan and previous defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Hawthorne (6-0, 246) has been somewhat ordinary since joining the Saints in 2012. He’s been a decent run defender, though inconsistent at times. And he’s only had six sacks, one interception and one forced fumble in three seasons in New Orleans (three of those sacks coming in a Week 15 win at Chicago last season).

However, Hawthorne has been dependable enough to maintain a full-time starting job, racking up a total of 174 tackles over the past two seasons. And it’s telling that the Saints elected to work out a pay cut to keep Hawthorne on the roster this year, while they decided to let Lofton go when they were unable to do the same.

Payton shed some insight into what the Saints like so much about Hawthorne when he brought Hawthorne's name up unsolicited, right away, when asked about Anthony’s chances of earning that "quarterback" job.

“I would say this: One of the strengths of Hawthorne is his ability to communicate. When you look at his time at TCU and even in Seattle as a Mike, he’s someone that was very good in that role,” Payton said of Hawthorne, who began his career with the Seattle Seahawks from 2008-2011.

Payton didn’t hold back on his praise of Anthony, either, though.

“I think when you see this from Stephone, you see a No. 1 college defense at Clemson. Brent and his staff there did a great job, you can see it on film. So you get that confidence with a player,” Payton said. “As you guys will have a chance to see when you’re around him, he’s very mature, it’s very important to him, he’s a real good communicator. All those things were huge pluses. ... And the other thing I would say that’s notable with him is his size, his stature. I mean, he’s big.

“So this has been a real good exposure for us now, getting a chance to see him articulate the defense, learn the defense. It’s awfully important to him. So he’s got some of those traits.”

The only knock on the Saints’ decision to draft Anthony with the 31st pick was that many analysts felt they might have had a chance to get him with the 44th pick if they waited until Round 2. But Payton brought that up, suggesting the Saints didn’t want to risk missing out.

“The trick was, all right, if we put a certain grade on him, once we get past this spot in Round 1, we know historically there’s going to be a little run (on inside linebackers) here,” Payton said of the early part of Round 2.