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Regardless of young LB investments, Alex Anzalone is still the leader of the defense

A bounceback 2022 campaign shows Anzalone has juice left, and the Lions have put their faith in him

Syndication: The Post-Crescent Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK

As a liminal team, the Detroit Lions looked to veteran leadership from the outside at the start of the Dan Campbell regime. It is an ephemeral job, the kind of euphemism that comes with rebuilding efforts, job training that pushes out the trainer overtime. Alex Anzalone’s role was always to assist in rebuilding the linebacker corps—a unit that had struggled in numerous Lions regimes—and his first year in Detroit left many wondering whether that job would be a short one.

Instead, Anzalone found a renaissance, posting one of his best seasons in his career, and the Lions quickly extended him for three years. It has cemented his role with the team for the intermediate time, even as fans eye young shiny toys in Malcolm Rodriguez and Jack Campbell. While expectations still look to Anzalone to be replaced as the leader (probably Campbell), the organization is placing the fate of 2023’s linebackers in his hands and one of the green dots on his helmet.

Let’s take a look at how we got here.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, David Montgomery, Graham Glasgow, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marvin Jones Jr., Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Christian Covington, Craig Reynolds, Isaiah Buggs, and John Cominsky.

Alex Anzalone

Expectations for 2022

After a disappointing 2021 season, along with ending the year on IR, Anzalone returned on a one-year contract with the Lions. His role was already in question, especially as other linebackers got time to wear the green dot and take time at mike linebacker.

In addition, the training camp and preseason hype surrounding Malcolm Rodriguez further pushed Anzalone down in the eyes of fans and media, and by all means it looked to be supplanted before long. While Anzalone had familiarity with the staff from his time in New Orleans, his 2021 performance cast doubt on any viability beyond handing over the keys to the unit.

Expectations were low, as to be expected of almost any key member of the 2021 Lions defense.

Actual role in 2022

17 games (17 starts): 1,076 defensive snaps
Stats: 125 total tackles (78 solo), 1.5 sacks, 7 QB Hits, 7 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
PFF defensive grade: 59.2 (53 out of 81 linebackers)
PFF run defense grade: 58.5
PFF coverage grade: 58.9
PFF pass rush grade: 65.2

Anzalone didn’t set the world on fire, but he didn’t need to. His 2022 campaign was a marked step up from the previous season, and he played more defensive snaps than Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez combined. Mistakes were cut, form was refined and he took charge of the defense. If there was to be a season where he would be forced out from the starting lineup, this was not the year; he ended up being the most productive linebacker on the Lions roster.

The breadth of Anzalone’s production put him in the upper echelon of Lions linebacker performances in the past 10 years (albeit, not a high bar to clear) and allowed him to take charge of the defense, calling coverages and shifts and getting involved in the pass rush. His 21 pressures were a career high as he assisted in the point of attack with Detroit’s young EDGE group.

“Last year was the best I’ve ever seen him in all the years that we had him in New Orleans,” said coach Dan Campbell in December. “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.”

The faith in Anzalone was rewarded, as the linebacker proved he still could lead the defense and the Lions rewarded him in turn with three more years on a NFL contract.

Outlook for 2023

“Alex’s gonna come out, he’s gonna be a leader on the field,” said linebacker Derrick Barnes. “He’s gonna be in the right spot every single time. I’ve learned, I’ve trained with Alex, just been in his pocket asking questions. You know, ‘How you do this? How you do that?’ ...We’ve built one of the strongest relationships that I’ve had since I’ve been in the league.”

The contract for Anzalone provides for a potential out in 2025, which means that for at least two years, he is secure on the roster. Affording as always in the NFL performance über alles, he is set to continue to see significant time on the field, even as the younger linebackers continue to develop.

Of course, there is a fan outlook that believes Anzalone to be supplanted by Jack Campbell mid-season. I don’t see it. It’s a sexy idea, but it supposes a massive and rapid development of Campbell at a complex position. If Campbell performs well you can expect the Iowa product to see some time sharing snaps and some games where he tries out the role, but the early season alone won’t push Anzalone off his role. And even if Campbell does become the team’s MIKE, don’t be surprised if Anzalone stays on the field beside him; he has the versatility.

The staff’s refrain of “not given but earned” would have to truly be pushed for Campbell to supplant Anzalone at this juncture, who enjoys the favor of the coaching staff and the respect of his group. A changing of guard is more likely if Anzalone regresses to a 2021 level of performance, but short of that it’s hard to see where he would start to lose time.

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