Alex Anzalone: Should the Lions bring back the free agent LB?

Breaking down Lions LB Alex Anzalone and his chance to return to Detroit for another season as an NFL free agent in 2022

One of the more interesting free agency decisions for the Detroit Lions is what they choose to do with linebacker Alex Anzalone. In his one season in Detroit, the off-ball LB had an up-and-down campaign but added value as a leader and a teacher of coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense and mentality, coming with the DC and head coach Dan Campbell from the New Orleans Saints.

After the Lions parted ways with Jamie Collins following Week 2, Anzalone’s coverage and run defense in space improved. He still struggled in games against teams with good play-action passing games (Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota), but the open-field speed and intensity made him a largely effective off-ball backer in Glenn’s defense.

Could Anzalone return in 2022?

The 27-year-old clearly liked his time in Detroit. In a recent Instagram post, a sincere Anzalone thanked the Lions and his teammates for a fun season, one where he was elected a captain by his new teammates.

“It was a privilege to play for the Lions organization this year. I truly had one of the most fun seasons playing football in my life despite everything. Being chosen as captain by my peers has been an honor that I’ll never forget. As chapter 5 ends, 6 begins…,” Anzalone wrote.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CYzItYSuvIE/

He’s an unrestricted free agent who finished the season on the injured reserve list, and rookie Derrick Barnes played decently (outside of two drives in the Week 18 matchup with the Packers) in his absence. Anzalone has battled a lot of injuries going back to his college days at Florida, where he was a running mate of former Lions first-rounder Jarrad Davis.

Anzalone earned $1.75 million for his one-year deal in Detroit in 2021. A similar deal would likely lure him back. The demand for a limited backer with an injury history and his dreadful Pro Football Focus grade (34.1 overall) isn’t apt to be through the roof.

Bringing him back for a similar deal with the understanding that Anzalone is intended to serve as the No. 3 LB in a system that plays two LBs makes a lot of sense for all parties. If he wants more money, or if the Lions see him playing a more integral role, it’s not a good fit. Remember, Jalen Reeves-Maybin is also a free agent and should be a more priority option than Anzalone if the Lions are looking to keep some continuity at the LB spot.

Amon-Ra St. Brown sneaks into PFF’s top 25 wide receivers of 2021

Lions rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown sneaks into PFF’s top 25 wide receivers of 2021

It took him a little time to get rolling, but Amon-Ra St. Brown rode the lightning and thundered into national recognition for his strong play in the final third of the season. The Lions rookie wideout cracked into the top 25 wideouts of the 2021 season as chosen by Pro Football Focus.

After just 39 catches in the first 11 games, St. Brown exploded with 51 in the final six, catching at least eight in every game. PFF noted the Lions’ fourth-rounder blew away nearly all the competition in his thunderous finish to his first NFL season,

St. Brown went from fourth-round pick to a top-25 wide receiver in one year. Over the last six weeks of the regular season, he ranked third in PFF grade at the position — behind only Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams. While he may not have been beating press-man coverage on the outside, St. Brown did an excellent job finding soft spots in zone from the slot. He also didn’t drop a pass from Week 3 onward and caught half of his contested opportunities.

It’s worth noting that none of the three prominent wideouts the Lions let go after last season — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola — are anywhere to be found on PFF’s list. Green Bay’s Davante Adams captured the top honor.

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Lions will roll over just over $1 million in cap room to 2022

The Detroit Lions will roll over just over $1 million in cap room to the 2022 salary cap

There wasn’t a lot of spare salary cap room to be found in the couch cushions for the Detroit Lions, but the team did manage to scrimp together just over $1 million in unused cap room to roll over into 2022. Per numbers from ESPN’s Field Yates, the Lions rolled forward $1.079 million in 2021 cap room to the 2022 season.

Every little bit helps, of course. The Lions didn’t have as much to carry over into 2022 due to a preponderance of dead cap room taken in 2021 on players no longer with the team during the season (Matthew Stafford, Jamie Collins, Justin Coleman among many more).

Rolling over unused cap room is one way for teams to afford to spend more in the next season, especially for teams like the Lions who didn’t spend heavily in free agency in 2021. The adjusted figure at Over The Cap now projects the Lions to have $33,219,269 in cap room available for the coming offseason.

Tracy Walker wants to stay with Lions but ‘that’s not up to me’

Walker will be one of the top free agent safeties on the market

Tracy Walker picked a beneficial time to win his first NFC Defensive Player of the Week honor of his four-year career in Detroit. Set to hit free agency this offseason, Walker proved he can make the kind of impact plays that add figures to his next paycheck.

The Lions would like to keep Walker, especially considering the importance of the safety in Aaron Glenn’s defense and the lack of talent around Walker at the position. Only Will Harris returns under contract and he played better at cornerback. But it’s going to cost them, something Walker made clear.

In his final media appearance after the 2021 season, Walker balanced a tone between his desire to be back in Detroit and his desire to cash in on the open market.

“Like I said, I want to be a part of this tradition that’s been started here, but at the end of the day, that’s not up to me, honestly,” he said. “I’m here just to do what I do best and do my job. That’s for the upstairs and for my agents to decide, so as far as that, I let them handle that and I control what I control and that’s by making plays on the field.”

He appreciates the culture change and the new coaching in Detroit under Dan Campbell in 2021. Walker was one of the players whose game and psyche suffered the most under former coach Matt Patricia. He bounced back with a strong 2021, leading the Lions in tackles and establishing himself as one of the team’s leaders. It’s a very real draw for Walker to remain with the Lions.

“I feel like with these coaches, they believe in the players,” Walker said. “They understand what it’s like to be a player first off and so they’re open ears. Sometimes we might not always be right as players, but they’re still open to hear it and that’s the biggest thing for me. Like I said, that was the biggest difference, honestly, and so I respect these coaches for that, like I said, giving me a voice. And allowing me to voice my opinions and hearing me out regardless of if I’m right or wrong. And that’s the difference between these coaches and that’s why I respect them the way I do.”

But Walker could likely find that respect elsewhere too, and his agents will field plenty of offers. It’s a deep free agent class at safety, but the 26-year-old Walker will be one of the top ones on the market.

Senior Bowl QBs for the Lions roster announced

The Senior Bowl QBs for the roster the Lions are coaching in Mobile have been revealed

One of the big benefits of coaching in the Senior Bowl is the ability to work closer than any other NFL franchise with a large crop of draft prospects. For the Detroit Lions and Dan Campbell, they’ll get a look at three quarterback prospects often mentioned in aspirational connection to the team when they head the American team in Mobile next month.

The Senior Bowl revealed the quarterbacks who will play for Campbell and the Lions in the practices and game, which takes place on February 5th.

Detroit will handle Sam Howell from North Carolina, Malik Willis of Liberty and Bailey Zappe of Western Kentucky.

It’s a broad range of prospect levels. Howell is generally projected in the back half of the first round, where the Lions hold the pick from the Los Angeles Rams. Willis is now expected to be a Day 2 pick, in the second or third round. Zappe often gets slotted in the early part of Day 3, the fourth or fifth round.

Interestingly, Kenny Pickett from Pittsburgh and Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati will be on the other roster. Pickett is often projected as the top quarterback in the draft, while Ridder is often in the same range as Howell or Willis. They will be on the roster coached by the New York Jets, who took QB Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall last year.

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Lions legend Calvin Johnson visits Ford Field for a fan’s-eye view

Johnson commented that he might get season tickets for next year

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It’s not normally newsworthy when a legendary player visits the stadium and team where he earned his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the complex relationship Calvin Johnson has with the Detroit Lions is not your typical situation.

So when Johnson shows up at Ford Field, the home of the Lions, and cheerfully posts to his social media accounts that he was there, it definitely raises the eyebrows. That’s exactly what Johnson did, visiting the stadium where he performed amazing football feats.

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Johnson posed comfortably in the Ford Field seats, noting he’d never really been there before.

“Here’s to the fans that have supported me during my time in the league. Week after week. Rain, snow or shine you were always there. I’ve never experienced this POV maybe I’ll grab season tickets next year,” Johnson wrote as his caption.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CYpNr1ylJq_/

He also posted a pic from a different part of Ford Field to his Twitter account,

Johnson didn’t post any reason for his visit, but he still makes his home in the Detroit area and has always been quick to note his beef is with the prior Lions ownership and management, not the city or the fans.

The ongoing drama and tension between Johnson and the organization is long overdue to be resolved. Hopefully this is another step in that direction.

Tracy Walker earns NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 18

Lions safety Tracy Walker earns NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 18

Talk about ending the season on a high note…

Lions safety Tracy Walker has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his outstanding Week 18 performance in Detroit’s win over the Green Bay Packers. Walker recorded 13 tackles and sealed the Lions’ victory with a late interception to earn his first-ever player of the week nod.

It’s a case of great timing for Walker, who is a pending free agent this offseason. His interception is of particular note because it was his first in two seasons and he had missed a few opportunities earlier in the year.

For the season, Walker finished with a team-high 108 tackles, three TFLs, six PDs, one sack and the season-ending interception.

 

Rookie report: Lions 2021 class shines in season finale

Detroit Lions rookie report: The 2021 class shines in the season finale

The 2021 Detroit Lions rookie class ended the season on a high note with a 37-30 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

The Lions faced their fair share of adversity throughout the season, which in turn made them rely on many of their rookie players to take on larger roles.

This remained true for their season finale, as Detroit utilized 13 first-year players in their victory over Green Bay.

Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has become the focal point of the Lions’ offense. Not only did he make franchise history by recording the most receptions by a rookie, he put his name down in NFL history books as one of three rookie receivers to record the stats that he’s put up over this half of the season. His abilities on the field drew plenty of attention to himself, which benefitted Detroit on trick plays as well. Green Bay’s defenders assumed St. Brown would get the ball and hone in on him, allowing the offense to make some big scoring plays. St. Brown finished the game with eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown along with one carry for 12 yards.

Cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu also had himself a day. Expectations were low for the rookie after a rough outing against Seattle the week prior. He was tasked with covering Davante Adams, one of the league’s top receivers, and managed to hold his own. Melifonwu managed to suppress Adams the best he could and allowed just two receptions for 17 yards when targeted. His most stunning play was a pass breakup against Adams that forced a fourth down by Green Bay. The rookie corner showed vast improvement and hopefully will be able to carry that momentum into next season. He had five tackles and a fumble recovery against Green Bay.

Melifonwu’s aforementioned fumble recovery was set off by fellow rookie cornerback AJ Parker, who knocked the ball out of the hands of Packers receiver Juwann Winfree. Parker has started at the nickel cornerback position for most of the year and has shown some great potential there. The undrafted rookie laid out several big hits in this game and proved he’s capable of holding a starting role next season. Parker also is credited with a pass breakup and three tackles in this game.

Rookie tight end Brock Wright returned after dealing with both injury and illness for the two weeks prior to this game and still managed to put on quite a show. While initially used as a blocking tight end, he was forced to become more of a receiving option after T.J. Hockenson was placed on injured reserve. Wright caught both passes thrown his way for 51 yards and a touchdown.

Another rookie who had a decent game was nose tackle Alim McNeill. The third-round pick only played a little over a third of the defensive snaps for Detroit, but was a dominant force as a pass rusher and run defender. McNeill bullied Green Bay’s offensive line, dropping down on them like the 330-pound anvil that he is.

Derrick Barnes finally earned a start at inside linebacker and made the most of it. Other than getting beat for one touchdown that he had no business covering in the first place, Barnes had a decent game. The rookie came away with five tackles and a sack, but still has plenty of room to improve. He has a long way to go before he can be a full-time starter, but the door is open with both Alex Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin set to hit free agency.

Defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike had a fairly quiet game. He saw more reps than usual but failed to make much of an impact on the game.

On the offensive line, Ryan McCollum was thrown into the action after Evan Brown suffered an injury just five snaps into the game. On his first snap, McCollum was easily beat and gave up a sack. He played 31 snaps before Detroit opted to shift left guard Jonah Jackson over to center and have Jared Goff take direct snaps from him instead. Undrafted rookie Tommy Kraemer took over for Jackson at left guard for the remainder of the game and didn’t allow any pressure on Goff.

Kicker Riley Patterson had another perfect day. The rookie attempted and made four extra points and three field goals. At this rate, he should be the heavy favorite for the kicker job next season.

Mark Gilbert, Brady Breeze, and Tavante Beckett only took the field for special teams plays. None of the three rookies recorded any stats.

Highlights from Lions GM Brad Holmes season-ending press conference

Lions GM Brad Holmes met with the media on Tuesday after the season ended. Here are the highlights of what Holmes said.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes met with the press for the first time since the 2021 season started. His end-of-season press conference on Tuesday at the Lions’ team headquarters in Allen Park offered quite a few points of interest.

Here are some of the highlights and quotes from Holmes in his year-ending press conference.

Lions claim safety JuJu Hughes off waivers from the Rams

The Detroit Lions claim safety JuJu Hughes off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams

The Detroit Lions season might be over, but GM Brad Holmes keeps on adding players. Holmes tapped into his former team, the Los Angeles Rams, and claimed safety JuJu Hughes off waivers from the playoff-bound Rams.

Hughes is in his second NFL season and played 19 total games for the Rams, almost exclusively on special teams. He did get some brief looks as a free safety in Los Angeles as he bounced between the active roster and practice squad. Hughes recorded four total tackles and played 29 snaps on defense in seven games in Los Angeles in 2021.

The 5-11, 188-pound Hughes was an undrafted free agent in 2020 after a hard-hitting career at Fresno State. Holmes, then the Rams’ director of scouting, was the primary catalyst in the Rams signing him to a contract. Interestingly, Hughes pushed another current Lions player, DE Eric Banks, off the Rams roster earlier this season in a roster move. The Lions claimed Banks off waivers when the Rams dumped him to sign Hughes from their practice squad.

Detroit can certainly use the help at safety, where only Brady Breeze and Will Harris are under contract once the league year changes to 2022.