While Derrick Barnes and Jack Campbell are battling for one starting linebacker spot, Alex Anzalone is feeling as comfortable as he ever has in the other.
Anzalone, the Detroit Lions‘ leading tackler last season, is playing more weak-side linebacker this summer, his natural position, while Barnes and Campbell have split first-team reps in the middle.
“Alex can play all the positions and it’s one of the reasons why he’s a huge asset for us,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said before the Lions’ final joint practice against the New York Giants on Wednesday. “But I think he’s really naturally more a WILL. He’s more that position. And I think it fits his skill set, and he was another player (on Tuesday that) I thought played fast. He played fast. He took it up a notch, and so I think he’s right where he belongs right now.”
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Anzalone led the Lions with 125 tackles last season, his sixth in the NFL, and started every game for the first time in his career.
He played predominantly as a middle linebacker during his first two seasons in Detroit out of necessity, as one of the veterans on a young unit and the player most familiar with coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense from their time together with the New Orleans Saints.
“I know there’s carry over from my time in New Orleans with A.G., but it is different what we’re doing so just having that background and really understanding what A.G. wants and what his defense requires, I feel like it’s the most comfortable I’ve been,” Anzalone said.
Barnes, a third-year player out of Purdue, and Campbell, the Lions’ second of two first-round picks in April, have both seen extensive time with the first-team defense this summer vying for what appears to be one of the true starting jobs up for grabs.
Campbell has played more with the first team in base defensive packages recently, while Barnes has taken the majority of snaps alongside Anzalone in the Lions’ nickel package.
Barnes said his goal is “to go out and start and chase my dreams of being one of the best,” while trying to make getting better the focus of his days.
“Obviously, it’s competition and everybody wants to start, everybody wants this and that, but if you focus on yourself, I think that’s big for me,” Barnes said. “Focusing on myself, focusing on things I can correct and continue to get better at, and the things I am good at, continue to elevate those, everything that I ever wanted will come. Like I said, if it doesn’t, I’m still here fighting for my team and going to do everything I can whether it’s playing special teams, whether it’s playing defense, no matter what it is, I’m just here to help my team for sure.”
Starters to sit
Dan Campbell said he has a good idea which starters will and won’t play in Friday’s preseason opener against the Giants, but he declined to reveal any specifics Wednesday.
“I’m sure you guys can guess some of them,” Campbell said.
Last year, the Lions held most of their starters and top rookies out of their second preseason game with the Indianapolis Colts, after practicing against the Colts twice in the days before the game. Anzalone, Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Aidan Hutchinson and the entire starting offensive line were among those that did not play.
Campbell said his starters got similar work this week in an environment that’s more controlled than the game.
“That’s kind of the point is get real good work, two days, high intensity, a lot of density in there as well,” he said. “I mean, they hit us on some tempo offensively yesterday, which is great for our guys. I mean, that gets on you. So it’s really good work.”
The Lions signed running back Devine Ozigbo and waived receiver Avery Davis on Wednesday. Running back Craig Reynolds did not practice Wednesday and wore a compression sleeve on his right leg, and starting backs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery are among those not expected to play Friday.