The Detroit Lions have officially signed linebacker Alex Anzalone, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million, and he appears to be a front-runner for a starting off-the-ball linebacker role alongside Jamie Collins.
The Saints drafted Anzalone in the third round (76th overall) of the 2017 draft, where he played with former Lions’ linebacker Jarrad Davis at Florida. Over four seasons in the NFL, Anzalone started 20 of the 38 games he played in but he landed on injured reserve in 2017 and 2019. Injuries—specifically his shoulder—are something that has plagued him since college.
When drafted, Anzalone was considered the missing piece for the Saints’ linebackers. But this past season, with his injury history and the fact that he struggled at the beginning of the year, the Saints traded for Kwon Alexander and asked Anzalone to come off the bench—which lasted six games before an Alexander injury vaulted him back into the starting lineup.
Entering free agency, Anzalone joined the Ross Tucker podcast and said he was looking for the right fit with his new team. Ironically, during this discussion, he pointed to Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff’s approach to landing with a new team: “I think the number one thing that any player wants is the right fit, and for a team to believe in you. It’s tough to navigate that decision, depending on how many teams are looking into you. It’s a crazy time in our lives but we’re looking forward to it.”
Anzalone found that fit by joining two of his former coaches Dan Campbell (head coach) and Aaron Glenn (defensive coordinator) in Detroit.
What Anzalone brings to the field
Physically, Anzalone (6-foot-3, 241 pounds) is a terrific athlete, who has above average speed for the position, quality short-area quickness, and is one of the best movement linebackers in coverage in the NFL. He isn’t explosive or overly strong, but his overall RAS score of 8.03 illustrates he is exactly the type of above-average athlete Lions general manager Brad Holmes targeted at the linebacker position during his time in Los Angeles as the Rams director of college scouting.
He plays the majority of snaps off the ball, with his biggest strength being in coverage and biggest weakness being in stopping the run. Per PFF, Anzalone has a career coverage grade well above average at 70.9, while his run defense checks in at a below-average 51.8 grade. His 65.9 pass-rush grade also shows up on film.
His four-year overall PFF grade of 65.2 is better than any Lions linebacker in the last three years, though Collins was close with a 64.2 grade in 2020. The last Lions linebacker to land a higher grade was the recently re-signed Jalen Reeves-Maybin with a 68.2 grade on 239 snaps in 2017.
One of the key advantages of the Lions bringing in Anzalone is that Campbell and Glenn know what he brings to the table, both good and bad.
“It’s not even so much what you think they can do, it’s you know what their downside is,” Campbell said about bringing in free agents that had worked with the Lions staff previously. “That’s different than anything else, in free agency you don’t always know what all the warts are. You do when you’ve been with these guys.”
Expect the Lions to put Anzalone in coverage situations where he has a proven track record of success.
Understanding expected linebacker roles in the Lions new defense
Campbell has previously mentioned that the Lions plan to model their defensive front after the Rams’ 2020 scheme while leaning on coverage concepts derived from the Saints scheme.
Last season, the Rams’ deployed four main linebacker roles.
The SAM (basically the same role as the JACK in last year's scheme) is a pass-rushing linebacker who rarely leaves the field. Romeo Okwara seems the likely primary player for this role, but he will be backed up by Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, and Charles Harris.
The WILL is another pass-rushing linebacker—who lines up on the line of scrimmage opposite the SAM—that has some potential in coverage. Both Okwara brothers should be in the mix here. This is a part-time role and last season the Rams’s used it roughly 50 percent of the time.
The MIKE is a traditional off-the-ball role, that lines up in between the tackles at the second level. Both Collins and Anzalone are ideal fits here, and Reeves-Maybin also seems to fit the mold. This is another position that will remain on the field at all times.
The final linebacker role is a second INSIDE linebacker (called the JACK, but its role is closer to the WILL in the previous scheme) and they line up off the ball next to the MIKE. Collins, Anzalone, Reeves-Maybin, and Shaun Dion Hamilton are the ideal candidates here. Last season, the Rams used this linebacker role between 50-75 percent of snaps.
Projecting Anzalone’s role in the Lions new defense
Expect Anzalone to be the starting second INSIDE linebacker that is deployed heavily in coverage. This is a part-time role, and he will occasionally split some time with Reeves-Maybin and/or a rookie, but that should help keep Anzalone healthy and fresh.
Here’s an example of how the Lions could deploy their linebackers with Anzalone on the field:
In the above situation, the nose tackle is not on the field in favor of the fourth linebacker. There will be occasions that the Lions want to keep three down linemen and Anzalone on the field, in which case, the Julian Okwara spot (WILL) would be removed and the down linemen redistributed.
There are, of course, loads of variants in how the Lions will set up their front-six/seven. Some of the players are interchangeable at a few different spots, but Anzalone will most likely be in an off-the-ball role and used in coverage when he is on the field.