METAIRIE, La. -- Stephone Anthony has no problem admitting that new middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is already the "alpha dog" of the New Orleans Saints defense.
Perhaps Anthony could have felt threatened or disappointed when the Saints decided to sign the veteran middle linebacker/signal-caller/quarterback of the defense in free agency -- since that was the same role that Anthony played last year as a rookie.
But Anthony insisted he was "all for it" when linebackers coach Joe Vitt told him he would be switched over to strong-side linebacker. For two reasons: It should be better for the team. And it should be better for Anthony.
"It kind of makes my job easier. So I’m enjoying it," Anthony said. "It’s gonna show the different things I can do. So I’m gonna have some fun with it and make the best of it."
The Saints are still very high on Anthony, whom they drafted with the 31st overall pick out of Clemson in 2015. The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder had a strong rookie season, making all 16 starts at middle linebacker and tying for 20th in the NFL with 112 tackles. He added one interception and two forced fumbles.
However, the Saints stunk on defense last year -- ranking dead last in the NFL in points per game, yards per rush and yards per pass play. And it was apparent that they made it a top priority to get better at alignment and assignment issues.
That was the main reason why the Saints fired former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last November (though Ryan blamed the Saints for switching schemes on him). And it’s why they kicked the tires on a few veterans like Laurinaitis in free agency before signing the 29-year-old to a three-year deal worth between $8.25 million and $9.75 million per year.
"Look, it’s about getting our players in the best position to excel. ... And it’s about improving from 31 or 32 [in the rankings] and getting better," Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked if he was worried that Anthony would view the move as a demotion. "So I think Steph’s been great that way. He wants to play and contribute and be a part of a defense that’s good. And that’s been kind of the focus."
Anthony said he believes he has the ability to play all three linebacker positions -- and the Saints will continue to cross-train him at both the strongside and middle linebacker positions this offseason. He and Laurinaitis rotated with the first-string defense in nickel packages during Thursday’s OTA practice (when the Saints had only two linebackers on the field at a time -- the other being weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe).
Anthony has said he began studying film of other strongside linebackers when the Saints told him they were making the switch -- including Bruce Irvin, Anthony Barr and close friend and former Clemson teammate Vic Beasley (who is actually making a switch of his own to strongside linebacker this year for the Atlanta Falcons after playing more of a defensive end role last year).
Although Anthony said it will take some adjusting to playing over the tight end (where he "can’t see as much" and where it’s "more of a point-of-attack game") he said Laurinaitis’ arrival will take some pressure off.
"Oh no doubt. I think Laurinaitis takes pressure off of everybody," Anthony said. "He’s a great asset to this team. And the way he communicates and the way he gets guys lined up is gonna help us a ton.
"He’s been in [a similar defensive system with the Rams] for eight, nine years now, and he’s definitely the alpha male. He’s the alpha dog. He’s gonna be able to help us a lot, and he’s gonna teach me a lot."
Laurinaitis played most recently under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in St. Louis. Current Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen learned much of his system when he coached under Williams with the New Orleans Saints from 2009-2011.
Payton said Laurinaitis has proven to be a quick study, as expected, and his leadership transition has come quickly.
"He’s already at a stage where he can assist others in alignment," Payton said. "He knows it cold right now."