Saints rookie LB Nick Anderson is determined to prove himself right

Initially, former Tulane linebacker Nick Anderson didn’t want the No. 40 jersey number he chose to wear again as a New Orleans Saints undrafted free agent. It’s where his quiet chip on his shoulder lies. Beneath Anderson’s calm, cerebral nature and leadership is the scrappy mentality of a fighter. One who overcame no invites to college showcases like the Senior Bowl or the Combine. Who chose to forgo his childhood SEC dream for a better route to the NFL.

When Anderson was deciding between Ole Miss and Tulane, his defensive coordinator at Jones Junior College warned of him becoming just another guy. Nick ultimately bet on himself. He was disappointed to arrive in New Orleans with a number that belonged to former starting linebacker and team captain, Zach Harris. “I grew to love that number simply because I didn’t want it,” he told me.

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“They made the comparison of me to Harris when I first got there,” Nick continued. “He was a great player. But I wanted to make a name for myself. I’m in No. 40. Why not do that in this number versus being compared to somebody else? I put that chip on my shoulder and wanted people to know Nick Anderson is No. 40 and not the players in the past. It’s surreal to wear it going into the NFL, because I’m adapting and bringing that same mentality and allowing people to see who I am regardless of what number I have on.”

Nick Anderson had to prove himself at Tulane and knows it’s time to do the same in the NFL. Rather than dwell on hearing his name called on the last day of the NFL draft, Anderson found beauty in the opportunity to make a decision for the first time in this process. Just as he found in a jersey number he didn’t want to wear.

I had asked Anderson a question I already knew the answer to ahead of Tulane’s pro day: what’s the dream? He quietly and immediately answered becoming a New Orleans Saint. He didn’t care how it happened. He didn’t care that his height was the biggest thing standing in the way of destiny. He understood he only had one opportunity. That mindset was the driving force behind the most impressive pro day numbers fathomable for a player of his stature.

New Orleans values players who record high metrics in the Relative Athletic Score (RAS). Developed by Kent Platte, the RAS provides a composite grade out of 10 and categorizes measurables into size, explosion, speed, and agility. The tool assesses players’ athletic abilities relative to the position they play. What it doesn’t do is factor measurables like height into a player’s score in other categories. It makes what Anderson did quite incredible.


Anderson measured in at a little over 5-foot-9. He walked into pro day with a best 32-inch vertical and 9-foot-7 broad jump. He’s grateful for the pointers from his former teammate and new Titans rookie, Tyjae Spears, who critiqued him on his broad jump and showed him pointers he’d learned in his training out in Texas. Anderson also walked in with a slightly tweaked hamstring from two weeks prior; a mental roadblock more than a physical limitation. He found fortitude, crediting Tulane strength and conditioning coach, Kurt Hester, with careful preparation that awarded him confidence.

The opportunities he didn’t get that he should’ve had were on his mind. Through an amalgamation of adrenaline, technique, and that chip on his shoulder, Anderson blew scouts away. While he kept mentioning his adrenaline, that only gets you so far. He jumped 6 inches over his previous best for a 10-foot-1 broad jump. At his stature, he exploded upwards for a 36.5-inch vertical jump – twice.

“I jumped the first time, and several scouts got up and started remeasuring me,” Anderson remembers. “I took it as disrespectful a bit. I jumped 36.5 inches, get remeasured, and then they raised it up two more inches. So, I did it again on the next jump. It was another thing where I felt like people were trying to count me out. That adrenaline carried over to the broad jump to where I thought, let’s just do it. Let’s have a day and show everyone here why you deserve to be among everybody else.”

The way he described his mentality reminded me of our conversation about when Tulane played Ole Miss, and how he took that game in Tupelo, Miss. personally. But this time, he sounded like he was coming from a position of strength. It’s the type of fight you want in a rookie player. Just like the banner that hung in the Saints facility after the 2017 season.


“Having a chip on your shoulder doesn’t mean you’re walking around just ticked off at everybody,” Nick explained. “It’s walking around knowing you have a point to prove. Knowing that a lot of people count you out. You know the work you put in, your capabilities, and that regardless of what everybody else thinks, you have the power to perform how you want to perform. That was my mentality. My level of maturity, versus two years ago when I was out there trying to prove everybody wrong. On pro day, I was trying to prove myself right.”

Anderson knew he could control his own destiny through how he performed at pro day. After choosing to bet on himself at junior college with no Division 1 FBS opportunities; to forgo the SEC offer in his hometown state; to stay and win a conference championship after an emotional conversation in a bowling alley with Tulane’s former defensive coordinator, Anderson arrived at the NFL draft. Where players lose agency entirely. Hearing how he described Day 3 and specifically the seventh round gave me a perspective of gravity that’s still sinking in.

He had conversations with about 15 to 18 teams heading into the draft, including the Saints. Anderson’s agency compiled a list of top five landing spots based on communication and team fits. New Orleans wasn’t one of them. In the back of his mind, Anderson was always hoping the Saints would pull the trigger. That’s where he wanted to be. But he prepared himself to have an open mind because he knew he had no control at this point.

“Going into the seventh round, I’d been nervous the whole day,” Nick told me. “Walking in and out the house. I circled the block a couple of times. A lot of people don’t realize that’s your whole career in a day. You find out based on the decisions of others, will you get to continue doing something you love? Or do you have to find a new pathway? My process was really smooth. I didn’t have to deal with the stress of traveling here and there for interviews, to the Senior Bowl, the Combine. I wasn’t getting overanalyzed at all these different events.”


“I really flipped that situation to a more positive mindset,” he continued. “But that was the most stressful day throughout my whole process. We got to the seventh round, and the Saints have lost their two picks. They told me they might not have those picks at the end, but at their local day, they said they wanted to keep me in New Orleans and were going to fight to do that given their opportunity. If I was still there and they had a pick or fell to free agency, they were going to do everything they can to get me.”

All players share that dream of hearing their name called during the broadcast, getting that phone call surrounded by family. Anderson was in strong conversations with Seattle, one of the five teams on that list, and was looking at their last pick in the seventh round. Hoping someone pulled the trigger. Seattle went with a running back from Georgia. Nick was admittedly sad. He walked out of the house again out of frustration and took a walk with his grandmother. She told him everything would be alright and asked if he believed her. His mom joined them. Do you believe you’re going to play in the NFL? He told her undoubtedly. They told him he had nothing to worry about. It doesn’t matter how you get there; just know you’re going to play and thrive. Anderson felt grounded again just in time to turn back around to his agent running down the block on his cell phone followed by another guy from the agency holding a laptop.

“They’re hauling tail down the block, yelling we might have an offer from Seattle,” Nick laughed. “Asking what I wanted to do. One thing people don’t realize is that things are going fast. The draft was ending, and while we couldn’t talk specifics or numbers until it was over, I had a potential offer on the table. I had been in contact with their linebacker and special teams coaches throughout the process. I’m sitting there thinking, they didn’t pick me. But I still have a true opportunity to sign after the draft. To go play for the Legion of Boom defense, Pete Carroll, who is a Hall of Fame head coach, to play for the 12th Man. I’m still upset, but I’m trying to make the most out of it. I’m set. I tell my agent, if they make the deal, let’s do this. In my mind, I’m going to Seattle.”

One of the other teams on that list was the Rams, who had the last pick in the draft. Anderson got on his knees and started praying for God to work something out. He felt a bit lost. Knowing he had no control over the next half hour, he got his mind together and prayed for a positive outlook. That things would work out as they’re supposed to. Nick felt a mental switch putting control in God’s hands and not wherever he ended up. He walked back outside with a strong mentality and asked his agent for the phone. It was Pete Carroll. Anderson felt all in and ready to see where it goes. In the middle of discussing the process of getting him up to Seattle, his dream came calling.


“The Saints were on the line. They asked my agent if I was still interested and available,” he said with a smile. “He told me who was on the phone and if I wanted to talk to them. There was no hesitation. It was linebacker coach Michael Hodges and Michael Parenton. They told me, ‘Nick, let’s do it. We told you we wanted you to be a part of this. We love the way you play. We want to bring you in and keep you in New Orleans.’ I can play different roles on the team and have a great opportunity to make the 53-man roster. I’m staying in New Orleans.”

The randomness of a player’s NFL fate became personal for me as I watched this year’s draft unfold. It took on new meaning after two seasons as Tulane’s sideline reporter. On my new podcast, Before the Whistle, I discussed a hypothetical five-round draft with a larger free agency pool – inspired by Nick Anderson. I’ve logged countless hours watching Anderson on and off the field to know he has what it takes. I’m pragmatic to know his size limitations make the right opportunity and fit paramount to his success. Anderson felt a bit naïve to how the draft unfolds – and had to endure stress until the final hour. With time to reflect, he realized the only difference between him and a draft pick is that their name was called on TV. That if certain teams had their picks, he would’ve been one of them. His coaches always told him a lot of the time, it’s better to have a decision versus going somewhere you’re not a great fit.

“I know I’m going into a room where people have done things the right way, come into the NFL and made a name for themselves,” Nick described of the linebackers. “It feels good to walk in with my goal surrounded by like-minded people. It’s not to be in the NFL making money. My goal is to perform well on the field and get to a high status of being an All-Pro, being a team captain. Picking up things where I left off in high school, junior college, Tulane, and now in the professional football league. To have the opportunity to pick Demario Davis and Pete Werner’s brains on different things and grow my football IQ. It’s a great situation and I feel blessed to have those caliber guys in the same room as me.”

Anderson knows he’ll have to take a step back from an every-snap starter to a role player. His mentality, whenever he steps on the field, is not to take a moment for granted, to make plays and adapt to whatever situation he’s put in. He feels versed in the way the Saints run their defense and that he could jump in certain packages, finding a way to get on the field. But Anderson noted he played on special teams every year at Tulane – I saw him in meeting rooms last season. In Tulsa, Okla. when he went back to his high school days at fullback and converted a fake punt. Reciting his exact 776 snap count with pride, he knows that’s his advantage going into camp to make the team. Nick’s excited to be thrown in the fire and shock a lot of people; how it happens is irrelevant. He’s ready to forge that path through his experience on special teams.


While the draft is a harsh reality check in losing all control, each careful choice a player makes from childhood to that awaited day in April matters. If you ask me what that moment was for Nick, it was his decision to play at Tulane over Ole Miss. Recruiting is designed to tug the strings of player ego – aka the pitch. Young players are impressionable, and many have dreams of a specific program; to obtain that offer and turn it down is a tough ask of a teenager. But it’s important to consider where you see a path to succeed. Can you see over the allure of greener pastures in favor of a better fit? Perhaps it was the year at junior college that gave Anderson perspective. After two years of getting to know him, I have a feeling he knew he was a Green Wave the moment he was asked by head coach Willie Fritz. He should be seen as a role model for a large portion of players entering college. His handling of the draft process is equally as valuable to look to for guidance. I asked him what he’d say to kids out there who may have lost their way.

“It’s not over,” Nick said. “Don’t give up and lose faith. This is when you’re tested the most. As someone who has used faith to talk about my platform for the last two years, it’s something that has rung true. I’ve been in a lot of situations where I had to really trust and believe that God is going to make a way. My advice would be to continue to work hard, to believe in yourself, and know the hard work that you put in, the trust in God, and everything you’ve done to get to this point hasn’t been in vain. Your time will come when is needed.”

“This whole process, I’ve had to stay here and be out of the spotlight,” he continued. “I had to work in silence. I’ve just been preparing my mental for when my time comes. My time will come when I have to prove myself and I want to be prepared. Not worried about what I’m not getting in the moment. When the time is right, God will make a way. Keep working hard so you feel prepared for it. You don’t want to sit around and feel sorry for yourself and then when your time comes, you’re not ready. As Coach Hampton would say, it’s better to be prepared and not have the opportunity than the opportunity come and not be prepared.”

Anderson’s decision to play at Tulane had the biggest butterfly effect on his trajectory. Quietly, his next important choice might be what he pulled out of his backpack after he finished his pro day right in front of me. I got a little emotional when I realized he was changing into a Sam Mills jersey, a decision he had made back in January. Anderson may not have been fond of his No. 40 jersey comparison when he got to New Orleans. In contrast, what he learned he shared with Sam Mills stuck with him. Traits described by a Tulane coach who shared the field with the Dome Patrol in his playing days, JJ McCleskey.


“He was someone JJ had always put on my mind,” Nick explained. “It just hit me one night. Sam Mills is a Hall of Famer. He’s someone that did it. We have similar measurables, but he didn’t let that stop him, rest his soul. Why not order the jersey and wear it on pro day? To show the ones who know who he is that it has been done and can be done. Not to knock me because of things I can’t control. I’m going to show up with my Sam Mills jersey, and the people that are supposed to get it are going to get it.”

It’s hard not to think the local team that signed him was at the top of, if not the entire list. It reminded me of my college admission process of making it clear Tulane was my first choice. He laughed telling me a couple of Saints scouts asked where his jersey was at their local day. Anderson thinks it made a difference. But it was a league-wide message to all 32 teams. That he had the same capabilities and potential as somebody before him who was one of the greats. Sam Mills did it and he knew he could as well. I had written that comparison of kindred spirits in my earlier piece on Nick not realizing how deep that connection went for him. I called coach McCleskey to ask what he saw in his former player that mirrored his teammate.

“Nick’s a student of the game, and Sam Mills was a big student,” McCleskey told me. “When you’re that size – what drew me to Sam was that I was small as a player. I would just watch him, how detailed he was, how early he was there, and stayed working extra. Nobody could say anything negative about Sam. He’s just flat-out a good person. Nick reminds me of Sam. He’s the type of person that had to change his body, took half a semester, and really bought into being in better shape. Nick weighed too much when he got here, and he took that time to get in better shape and cut the weight. That’s when Nick started to excel. He worked with Tulane, but also on his own. Nick’s a leader. There’s no way I’m betting against him not making that team.”

We ended our conversation with a simple question. Is there anything about him he wants Saints fans to know? He told me someone asked him recently what his goals were for the season. He wants to do whatever he can to help bring positive swag to the team, and pride back to the city of New Orleans when it comes to Saints football. Nick talked about the Minnesota Miracle, the No-Call in the loss to the Rams after a championship-caliber season. He knows what it feels like right when you’re at the hump. Rookie or not, he might have the best experience at that exact crossroad. Thanks to the last two seasons of Tulane football.


“It’s the same situation we were in at Tulane. I really believe I can take what I’ve done, my experience as a leader, having to fight through adversity of only winning two games to going and winning it all. I want to take that to the next level and be able to help out as a rookie. Even if it’s just advice or being a positive teammate and letting my light flow through the locker room. To help others understand that it can be done here in New Orleans.”

“A team right down the street did it,” he continued. “Even though it was college, it can be done in the NFL if everybody buys in to focus on the common goal. My goal is to win a Super Bowl. That’s the standard of what I want to do in my career – and I want to do it here in New Orleans. I don’t want to play my rookie contract out and take the easy route, get traded somewhere to win a Super Bowl. This is the team that picked me up. This is the team I want to go win for. I want Saints fans to know I want to do everything in my power to bring that championship feeling back to the city of New Orleans. I feel like, it’s due time to win. And we can get it done.”

I cautioned myself against hope throughout the draft process, struggling to remain objective about players I care too much about. I always had a feeling I would be writing this article on Nick. There are few people you come across in life where your immediate first impression is that they’ll change yours. Nick Anderson is one of them. His effect on those he touches transcends football. But the origins of the greatest single-season turnaround in college football history will always lie with him.

Anderson needed one team to give him a chance. In letting go of his dreams back in 2019, he put himself exactly where he was meant to be in New Orleans. Anderson is the diamond in the rough that leaves a legacy, and it starts with his impact in the locker room, in times of adversity, and lifting himself up through his team.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire