We continue our Detroit Lions free agent profile series with one of the tougher decisions facing the team. Alex Anzalone has been a leader of this defense and has consistently gotten better during his time in Detroit. But linebacker play has been subpar overall in the past two years, and it may be time for the Lions to start thinking about upgrading the position.
Let’s take a closer look at the case for and against re-signing Alex Anzalone.
Here’s a look at our previously-written free agent profiles: RB Jamaal Williams, IOL Evan Brown, NT Isaiah Buggs, EDGE John Cominsky, LB Josh Woods, CB Will Harris, CB Mike Hughes, CB Amari Oruwariye, SAF C.J. Moore, and K Michael Badgley
Expectations heading into 2022
In 2021, Anzalone was a captain and one of only a few veteran players on the team’s defense. However, his play on the field was mostly frustrating. He had one of the highest missed tackle rates in the league and was often caught out of position.
However, seeing as the Lions didn’t take any big swings at the position in the 2022 offseason. They spent just minor free agent resources on guys like special teamer Chris Board and Jarrad Davis, and only used a sixth-round pick in the draft. It was pretty apparent Anzalone—after signing another one-year, prove-it deal in Detroit—was headed back for a starting role for the second year in a row.
Actual role in 2022
17 games (17 starts): 125 tackles, 7 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 6 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery
PFF grade: 59.2 (44th out of 60 LBs with at least 500 snaps)
Though Anzalone’s PFF grade for 2022 was low, it was still a huge improvement from last year’s 35.4 mark, and that much was apparent on the field, too. His missed tackle rate went from 21.2 last year to 12.5 this past year—a far more average figure for the position. He also set career highs in tackles, QB hits (7), and was one of the most dependable players on the field, starting all 17 games and logging a team-high 1,080 snaps on defense.
Talking with Anzalone this year, he gave a very understandable reason for why he struggled last year and why he was much better in 2022. As he told Justin Rogers of the Detroit News, sometimes he felt the need to overcompensate for the young, mistake-prone players around him, and he was dealing with some new defensive tweaks that he wasn’t used to when he and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were with the Saints.
The improvement was certainly noticeable, and Anzalone came up with some of the biggest plays on defense all season, including an interception on Thanksgiving and this huge fourth-down stop in the season finale:
Aaron Rodgers & Packers STOPPED On 4th down …Allen Lazard goes down pic.twitter.com/WFihZqqOeO— NFL Daily (@SportsContent23) January 9, 2023
That said, there are areas of the game Anzalone still struggles with. His coverage skills (he allowed 32-of-40 completions when targeted per PFF) are below average and although he improved upon it in 2022, he’s not exactly a dynamic threat as an occasional blitzer.
Overall, though, Anzalone is a very cerebral player that quarterbacked the defense in 2022. We’ve often heard how important those “glue guys” are, and given Detroit’s youth, he was undeniably a critical piece of an improving defense.
Outlook for 2023
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
The case for keeping Anzalone:
As of right now, it doesn’t exactly look like anyone on the Lions roster is prepared to play the critical role that Anzalone played in 2022. While rookie Malcolm Rodriguez was way better than anyone could imagine, he eventually hit a bit of a wall. Handing him a leadership role with only one year of experience in the NFL (and in this defense) would be a major risk. And while Derrick Barnes will be entering his third year in Detroit, he didn’t take the Year 2 jump many were hoping for.
Additionally, Anzalone was good in 2022. He showed a thorough understanding of the defense and the assignments of everyone around him. That led him to play a lot quicker and instinctively this year, and the results speak for themselves. They won’t be able to replace that level of understanding and chemistry with the players around him in free agency or the draft.
Finally, linebacker is, in general, thought of as a low-value position. Anzalone will likely want a pay raise from his one-year, $2.25 million deal in 2022, but he won’t break the bank. Additionally, the Lions desperately need bodies to stick around, as only Rodriguez and Barnes are under contract for 2023.
The case for letting Anzalone walk:
One thing that Glenn has always preached was letting the young players on his team play, as it’ll be the only way they can develop. The Lions now have two starting-capable young talents in Rodriguez and Barnes, and while it would take a big jump from both to lead the defense with the green dot, the only way they’re going to grow into that role is by doing it.
Additionally, while high-character, cerebral players like Anzalone were absolutely key in the early stages of this rebuild, at some point, the Lions are going to have to go out and make significant talent upgrades on defense. Anzalone proved he’s a capable starter in this league last year, but if Detroit’s defense is going to pull itself out of the basement in every statistical category, they need elite guys. They need to upgrade.
Is there interest from both sides?
It’s hard to imagine the Lions not wanting Anzalone back. This coaching staff has praised his play for each of the past two seasons. Here’s coach Dan Campbell back in December:
“Last year was the best I’ve ever seen him in all the years that we had him in New Orleans. That was the best that I’ve seen him play and this year is even better. He’s playing at a high level, he’s the quarterback of our defense. He’s versatile, he’s a really good athlete. He’s smart, he knows exactly what (Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn) AG’s looking for. He knows the situations that come up. He gets everything in order and he’s another guy, man. He’s a big locker room guy, man, the guys love him, and he knows – they know he’d do anything for them. So, he’s playing at a high level and I’m glad we got him.”
Anzalone’s interest in coming back is a little tougher to gauge. Back in December, he told the Detroit News he was very interested in returning:
“Obviously, I want to be here long-term. You try to take care of your family and everything like that, but I love playing for Dan, I love playing for AG and (Linebackers coach Kelvin Shepard) Shep. They really do get the best out of me. And I’ve said this since I got here, this really is a unique place where you can really leave our legacy as a player because there hasn’t been a lot of success, there hasn’t been a playoff win since ‘91. We’ve obviously gotten to this point a lot sooner than a lot of people thought we would, especially after the first half of the season, so I feel like this is a place I want to be for the long haul and hopefully it shakes out that way.”
But on locker room cleanout day, he was a little less certain and continued to bring up how big of a priority taking care of his family will be.
“I feel like it’s obviously a fit (here), but there’s multiple layers to that, you know. I’m going into Year 7 and you have to take care of your family. But I love Dan, I love AG, I love what they’re doing here.”
There’s no judgment here. With how short NFL careers are, if Anzalone wants to find the best deal out there for him, he absolutely should. The question is whether there is another team that will value Anzalone as much as Detroit clearly does. That seems unlikely.
Should the Lions re-sign Alex Anzalone
This poll is closed