Saints rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone quickly diagnosed a screen pass to running back Adrian Peterson, bolted into the backfield and swarmed Peterson moments after the catch.
For the first time this year, Saints coach Sean Payton and his staff got a look at their players in full pads and with a good bit of contact Saturday, providing a better look at young and newly acquired players New Orleans will lean on as it tries to climb out of a three-year rut of 7-9 records.
The play by Anzalone, isolated and early in camp as it was, encouraged Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who are looking for a new starter at weak side linebacker after placing incumbent Dannell Ellerbe on injured reserve, with plans to release him after he’s healthy.
Allen said Anzalone and third-year pro Stephone Anthony will compete for the starting job at that spot now. Anzalone, a third-round draft choice of Florida, saw a number of first-team snaps on Saturday.
Payton called Anzalone “instinctive.”
“One thing he can do is kind of see a formation, begin to break it down and understand whether he’s going to get run or pass,” Payton said. “You notice right away he’s a guy who’s tough to fool. He’s got real good vision and a great trait for any linebacker is key and diagnose and be able to recognize what they’re getting ready to defend.”
Another rookie who appears to be on the fast track is left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, albeit because of an injury to starter Terron Armstead. Ramczyk worked with the starting offense during 11-on-11 drills and did not appear to make any major gaffes.
“I thought he handled himself pretty well over there,” Payton said about the 6-foot-6, 314-pound Ramczyk, a late-first-round pick who started at Wisconsin last fall.
The more physical practice also offered receiver Michael Thomas a chance to showcase strides he continues to make after a stellar rookie season with 1,139 yards and nine TDs in 2016.
“I’m more than surprised at how physical he is,” said backup QB Chase Daniel, who returned to New Orleans this offseason after four years away. “You see him just forcing releases” from defensive backs trying to press him.
“He’s so physical off the line. He has big mitts, comes back to the ball really well – strong hands,” Daniel said.
Peterson, in his first season with a team other than Minnesota, rotated into the first-team offense with Mark Ingram, the incumbent starter. Now in his 11th season, Peterson has so far looked healthy as he comes back from a knee injury that sidelined him much of last season. He lowered his shoulder to welcome contact from several on-rushing defenders on a couple running plays, drawing cheers from the crowd of spectators filing the stands during the third practice of training camp and the first one open to fans.
The Saints also got their first look of any kind at newly signed veteran guard Orlando Franklin, who practiced for the first time and got a lot of snaps on a unit that is short-handed because guard Senio Kelemete’s undisclosed injury.
Franklin, a six-year veteran, was released this offseason by the Chargers, for whom he’d started for most of the past two seasons and starting four seasons in Denver. Currently, the Saints’ starting guards appear to be Andrus Peat on the left side and Larry Warford on the right. Still, the Saints the Saints want solid depth in front of quarterback Drew Brees, and Franklin also could play tackle.
“I’m happy to be at a new team and in new surroundings,” Franklin said. “I feel we have a great opportunity here, especially on offense. I want to be a part of a high-powered offense.”
Franklin said he didn’t sign until now because he was rehabilitating from knee surgery in January, repairing an injury with which he’d played much of the past two seasons.
Franklin said he wasn’t surprised when the Chargers released him because he’d asked for a trade in March.
“I asked to get out of there,” Franklin said.