By most counts, the Detroit Lions had a successful 2022 campaign. Though they fell short of the playoffs, the fact that they were competing down to the wire was a testament to the fortitude of the roster. The Lions had some obvious stars—Aidan Hutchinson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Penei Sewell, to name a few—but a team’s talent goes beyond its core pieces.
Finding players to grind out the tough snaps is an underrated and underappreciated task. A quarterback sack looks impressive on a player’s stat sheet, but it often takes an entire defensive line for it to happen. As a similar example, look at cornerback Jeff Okudah’s crucial pick-six against the Chicago Bears in Week 10. Okudah deserves obvious credit for the play, but how about Aidan Hutchinson? His heads-up play to ease off the pass rush and cover the tight end forced quarterback Justin Fields into a poor decision, a decision that proved instrumental in a 31-30 Lions win. Statistically, Hutchinson gets little acknowledgement for the play, but it would not have happened without him.
On a larger scale, the Lions had a fair share of players fly under the radar in what was a productive season. Their contributions may not have earned themselves Pro Bowl or All-Pro nods, but the team would not have succeed had they not stepped up. From waiver wire pickups to free agents, late-round rookies to veterans, the Lions had many players worthy of the title of unsung hero.
Who is your pick?
Today’s Question of the Day is:
Who was the Detroit Lions’ unsung hero in 2022?
My answer: Alex Anzalone is my unsung hero of 2022.
It feels weird to say that Anzalone is an unsung hero, having led the way with 1080 total snaps on defense. Yet despite the high snap count, I believe Anzalone hasn’t earned the proper praise for his role this season.
In a way, Anzalone is not too different from quarterback Jared Goff. Both joined Detroit in 2021, reuniting with a former colleague (Dan Campbell from Anzalone’s time with the New Orleans Saints, Brad Holmes from Goff’s time with the Los Angeles Rams). Their first season was more bad than good, partially a byproduct of a lack of talent around them. Entering their second season with Detroit, they were viewed by some as stopgaps, players whose role would eventually be usurped by someone of greater talent.
Yet 2022 was a success for both players. The supporting cast improved, but so to did their own game. Whereas Anzalone and Goff looked lost at times in 2021, they were far more decisive in 2022. Anzalone showcased much-improved tackling, particularly in the run game. The Lions had had a poor string of linebacking play going back a few seasons, but Anzalone, coupled with Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes, put forth a solid campaign for the group. Down the stretch, Anzalone was one of the best linebackers in the entire NFL as well:
Last one: Alex Anzalone is PFF's seventh-best LB over the past three weeks (82.3 grade)— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) December 19, 2022
Anzalone was a leader on defense—literally, as he was named a team captain—and his impressive snap count is indicative of the trust the coaching staff had in him. As a pending free agent, could the Lions upgrade from him? Theoretically, sure. Yet after a rebound season, coupled with his familiarity, there is little harm in bringing him back if the price is right. Even if Rodriguez and Barnes (or someone else) see increased roles in 2023, it makes sense to keep Anzalone around.
There are many other unsung hero candidates that I’ll touch upon. John Cominsky is perhaps the most sung unsung hero of all time, earning praise on a near-weekly basis after being a mere waiver wire claim. He was a worthy candidate for Breakout Player of the Year, but I feel like he is too talked about to be considered unsung. I’d apply similar logic to the aforementioned Rodriguez, James Houston, Kerby Joseph, Isaiah Buggs, and Brock Wright—they were impressive at times, but not necessarily under-the-radar players.
Kalif Raymond—who himself earned Jeremy Reisman’s vote for Breakout Player of the Year—is a good option for unsung hero. Not only did he quietly finish second in receiving yards, but his punt return skills were enough to earn himself a Second-Team All-Pro nod. Evan Brown deserves praise as well, logging a sizable number of snaps at right guard. On special teams, Josh Woods is one of the best players you never hear about—though he got Hamza Baccouche’s attention in our Special Teams Player of the Year vote.
That being said, I still give Anzalone my pick. If you looked at the reception he received on social media this season, you would hardly believe that 2022 was an improvement for him. In a season where a lot went right for the Lions, Anzalone’s performance is not one that should go unnoticed or unappreciated.