The Detroit Lions began the free agency period with a bunch of re-signings. That’s pretty standard for most teams. Take care of your own before moving onto the pool of players from other teams.
However, the Lions were pretty quiet the entire first week of free agency when it came to signing other teams’ players. DJ Chark was the team’s only score by the time the opening day of free agency came and went.
Frustrations among fans grew, as the Lions continued to bring back players who were partially responsible for last year’s 3-13-1 finish. The signing that really seemed to get people upset was bringing back veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone. So let’s take a closer look at that move.
Previous free agency grades: Josh Reynolds, DJ Chark, Tim Boyle, Evan Brown
Though Anzalone had started 20 games prior to the 2021 season, last year was the first time he was truly relied upon to be not only a full-time starter on defense, but a leader of the linebacking unit—especially after Detroit cut Jamie Collins early in the season.
It was a very up-and-down season for Anzalone. At times, it seemed like Anzalone was everywhere he needed to be. He was a magnet to the ball. Other times, he may have been in position to make a play, but he failed to do so. Anzalone had the highest missed tackle percentage of any other NFL linebacker in 2021.
That being said, he did flash in coverage at times. He produced four pass breakups and his second career interception. Overall, though, Anzalone struggled far more often than he thrived. Considering there should not have been much of a defensive scheme adjustment for Anzalone coming from New Orleans, Anzalone showed he may be best served as a vocal leader and a depth contributor.
Still, he consistently earned praise by the coaching staff throughout the year.
“He’s been rock solid,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said in December. “He’s been one of those guys—I mean, he’s been as steady as a rock and he’s really our quarterback on defense.”
Detroit continues to have a very big need at linebacker, so bringing in a confident, hard-working player to help mentor a young room does have some value. Derrick Barnes undoubtedly will benefit from his presence every day.
And with the recent addition of Jarrad Davis—Anzalone’s teammate from his Florida days—there’s a certain amount of chemistry he could bring to the group.
Ultimately, it looks like—as the roster currently stands—Anzalone is headed for another starting role. That could certainly change dependent on what Detroit does in next month’s draft.
The Lions gave Anzalone a one-year, $2.25 million contract with $1.75 million guaranteed. There are also a lot of incentives tied to his contract that could push his deal all the way up to $4 million total on the contract.
For comparison’s sake, the Lions gave Anzalone a one-year, $1.75 million contract last season. In other words, he got a pretty small, insignificant raise when it comes to his cap hit.
Per OverTheCap, Anzalone’s $2.16 million cap hit for this season ranks 56th among linebackers. For reference, Jalen Reeves-Maybin counts $3.22 million against the cap in his new deal with the Texans, and new Lions linebacker Chris Board has a cap hit of $1.99 million.
In other words, Anzalone’s matches players who are fringe starters. So, he’s a very affordable option.
Going into free agency, I thought Anzalone may have served his purpose in Detroit. He provided leadership and set an example as a hard worker for a team going through a rebuild. The hope was that it was time to upgrade in terms of talent.
But the Lions have made it perfectly clear that culture and leadership still very much matter to this team, and they are not going to be splurging in free agency to get starters. I can see how this is a frustrating strategy to those who expected the Lions to bulk up the roster in free agency—especially after general manager Brad Holmes specifically called this the “player acquisition phase” of the rebuild. But time and time again we’ve seen that the biggest “winners” in free agency often become the biggest losers when the bloated contracts come back to roost a few years later.
Ultimately, Anzalone’s signing is very low risk, but also pretty low reward. I get it, but I don’t really like it, either. Grade: D+
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