Sun, 05 Feb 2023

2022 position breakdown: Linebackers

Detroit Lions
25 Jan 2023, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The Good: Veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone produced the first 100-tackle season (125) of his career and also chipped in an interception, sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. His 21 total quarterback pressures ranked fourth most among NFL linebackers this season, and his 13 passes defended over the last two seasons are tied for the fifth most among all NFL linebackers over that span.

Detroit looks to have found a nice foundational piece at the position in Malcolm Rodriguez. The sixth-round draft pick was a starter from Day 1. His 12 tackles for loss or no gain was tops among all rookies. He finished the year with 87 tackles (62 solo), eight tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Veteran Chris Board proved to be a nice addition as a third-down specialist and special teamer, and Josh Woods and Anthony Pittman were key special teamers from the linebacker position.

Detroit's linebackers improved their missed tackles total from 32 in 2021 to 20 in 2022.

The Lions' defense played much better the second half of the season after being historically bad through the first two months. General manager Brad Holmes is expected to spend considerable resources upgrading the defense via free agency and draft, and the linebacker position could be part of that equation.

The bad: The numbers don't lie, and Detroit's defense was at or near the bottom in every major statistical category. One area where the Lions have to get better next season is against the run. They finished 29th against the run, allowing 146.5 yards per game on average. Opponents rushed for at least 175 yards six times against the Lions in 2022.

Opponents converted 45.1 percent of the time on third down. Only Atlanta (45.9) and Chicago (49.0) were worse. Anzalone, Rodriguez, Board and Derrick Barnes, the four linebackers who logged the most playing time this season, allowed 88 receptions on 110 targets between them (80 percent) for 880 yards.

Key stat: Detroit had the second lowest percentage of three and out drives forced (16.4 percent) in the league.

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MVP: Anzalone

Anzalone upped his play significantly in his second season with the Lions. He wore the green dot and was responsible for being the quarterback of the defense, getting the unit in and out of checks, and making sure guys were in the right spots. He was good in that role. He was a productive tackler, playmaker and pass rusher.

Most improved: Barnes

Barnes didn't play as many snaps and didn't have the same kind of production he did as a rookie in 2021, but he was much more efficient with the snaps he played, rotating in and out with Rodriguez. Barnes improved his overall Pro Football Focus grade by over 30 points from last year.

Free agents: Anzalone (unrestricted), Board (unrestricted), Woods (unrestricted), Pittman (exclusive rights)

Those are four key players at the position for both the defense and special teams. Anzalone is a Dan Campbell type of player - smart, tough and dependable. It will be interesting to see what he commands on the free agent market after coming off a career year.

Woods is one of the best special teams players in the NFL and told detroitlions.com after the season he really wants to be back in Detroit in 2023.

There are some productive veteran linebackers currently heading toward free agency, including: Lavonte David (Tampa Bay), Tremaine Edmunds (Buffalo), David Long Jr. (Tennessee), T.J. Edwards (Philadelphia), Drue Tranquill (LA Chargers) and Bobby Okereke (Indianapolis).

Draft: It isn't a particularly deep class of linebackers in this draft, but don't be surprised if the Lions look to add to the position at some point. Some of the top linebackers available in this year's draft are: Drew Sanders (Arkansas), Trenton Simpson (Clemson), Noah Sewell (Oregon) and Henry To'oTo'o (Alabama).

Quotable: "I feel like we started to hit our stride," Anzalone said of the second half of the season on defense. "We made some adjustments personnel-wise, we made some adjustments schematically and it worked out for us and we were tops in the league in some categories. It's like you're failing a test early in the semester it's really hard to recoup from that later on (in terms of final defensive rankings)."

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