Allen Park — It’s a feeling Alex Anzalone found difficult to describe. After playing three straight seasons not knowing where he’d be the following year, there’s welcomed reassurance in finally having some long-term security.
The veteran linebacker was in town Wednesday to sign a new, three-year contract with the Detroit Lions, allowing him the opportunity to, as he puts it, continue building a legacy with a team that’s on the rise.
As Anzalone searched for the right words to describe the anxiety of continuously playing on an expiring contract, he landed on “a sense of desperation.” In an ideal world, he never would have left New Orleans. Like many players, he dreamed of playing his entire career with the franchise that drafted him. But the reality of the NFL is that’s exceptionally rare.
After his rookie deal expired with the Saints in 2021, he landed in Detroit on a one-year, prove-it deal. The team’s leadership, including coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, understood what Anzalone could bring as a leader and culture-setter, but with an extensive injury history, there was no guarantee his body would hold up to the increased on-field role they envisioned.
And Anzalone didn’t make it to the finish line that season, missing the final few games. But before landing on the shelf, he set a career-high for tackles while playing nearly every defensive snap. That was enough to earn a second, one-year deal from the Lions. And much like the first year, he was able to reset expectations, being voted a captain, starting all 17 games, and blowing out the previous year’s tackle total, all while making strides as a pass rusher and in coverage.
So the Lions finally decided to commit, awarding him the three-year deal where he could earn close to $19 million if everything goes just right.
“It’s a sense of relief,” Anzalone said. “And also it’s a sense of you being yourself, too. All the walls are down. In this league, you don’t want to get burned emotionally, so you try to keep no strings attached as much as possible. But I really feel like I’ve found a home.”
With his mind at ease, Anzalone’s thoughts shift to the next steps. On a personal level, his biggest goal after racking up 125 tackles a year ago is finding the consistency that define the league’s elite players at his position.
“I think that I’ve proven that it’s in me and that I feel like there are some games last year that I was playing at a very high level,” he said. “I really just wanted to get that 17 games and still do all the leadership and the mentorship, getting everyone lined up, do all that.”
There are also team goals. Although it wasn’t reflected in the final numbers, Detroit’s 32nd-ranked defense played significantly better down the stretch. There were several factors that went into that improvement, but few more important than the young unit gaining experience and building chemistry. The idea is now that the foundation is there, the group can build on those successes in 2023.
“I think the development of the young guys is not an excuse anymore,” Anzalone said. “I think it’s time for everyone to take the next step. And even though we are a young team age-wise, I think that everyone has enough experience to be consistent, be reliable, be everything that you want out of an NFL player. I think that everyone needs to take that next step, collectively.”
And with that next step, Anzalone is eyeing playoff berths and wins. He knows it’s been a long time since the Lions have won a playoff game, but it still came as a little bit of a surprise when he learned it hasn’t been since 1991, three years before he was born.
“We are on the rise and I think we’re going to be for years to come,” Anzalone said. “It’s fun to see it happening and see it happening in real time, seeing young guys develop, seeing pieces being filled that we need filled through free agency or the draft. It’s going to be a fun year going forward.”