Top candidates for Lions breakout players in 2022:

Which Detroit Lions players are good bets to break out in the 2022 season?

Cue up “Breakout” by the Foo Fighters for appropriate background music…

Rookies are excluded here, though I will cop to believing that third-round safety Kerby Joseph is going to have a very big positive impact on the Lions secondary. Free agency newcomers are also left out because the obvious implication of signing a guy like DJ Chark is that he will have a breakout season (why else would you sign him for that money?). These are focused on returning players.

Here are the top candidates for the Lions players who take a big step forward in 2022.

Alim McNeill:

(AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

Nose tackle might not be the easiest position to attain “breakout” status, but McNeill is not your typical nose tackle. As a rookie, he flashed considerable quickness and excellent vision for the football while playing along the defensive interior.

The change to a 4-man front as the primary base should allow McNeill more opportunities to face single blocking as a pass rusher. The more aggressive, attacking defensive philosophy plays directly into what McNeill does well – fire off the snap, win with the unusual quickness he has for such a large man, and finish with power.

What would quantify a breakout campaign for McNeill at his position? Doubling his sack total from two in 2021 and topping the 50-tackle mark qualifies. And McNeill is absolutely capable of that – and more.

D’Andre Swift:

(AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

Now entering his third season, everything is in place for Swift to have the kind of special season so many envisioned when the Lions selected the Georgia running back in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft.

We’ve seen glimpses of what Swift can do in the open field, primarily as a receiving option out of the backfield. His gaudy catch total (62) in 13 games in 2021 pushed Swift over the 1,000 yards from scrimmage mark, with some help from a couple of fantastic breakout runs.

For Swift to break out, it will require more toughness as a runner. He goes down on first contact too easily and does not run with power frequently. To that end, Swift has bulked up in both the upper body and lower legs this offseason. With the offensive line’s elite potential, it helps unlock Swift’s dual-threat potential out of the backfield. He could threaten 1,500 combined yards if he stays healthy for more than the 13 games he’s played in each of his first two Lions campaigns.

Alex Anzalone:

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports:

The biggest difference most fans will notice in the new-look defense won’t be the 4-man front as much as the attacking mentality. The days of read-and-react are gone, especially for the linebackers.

Anzalone didn’t do that reactive style very well, especially when paired with Jamie Collins early on. He’s always been at his best at attacking downhill and using his speed to keep running backs from getting the outside edge on perimeter runs. That’s true of Anzalone going back to his college days at Florida.

Asking Anzalone to take more chances based on his impressive pre-snap diagnosing skills is playing to the veteran LB’s strengths. Anzalone could top 100 tackles; his 78 in 2021 were a career-high. But where he can really breakout is in tackles-for-loss. Just one of those 78 came behind the line of scrimmage last season, and that’s far more a function of the defensive scheme than Anzalone himself. He’s going to miss a few tackles – something he’s also done since his Gator days – but an improved aggression should have Lions fans feeling better about the hirsute Anzalone leading the LBs.

Jeff Okudah:

Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah practices during minicamp in Allen Park on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

It’s rapidly approaching now-or-never time for Okudah. After just 10 games in two injury-ravaged seasons, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020 has a lot to prove.

Based on what we’ve seen in the early offseason and what we saw last summer, Okudah absolutely has the talent and athletic ability to become a good starting cornerback – either outside or in the slot. Okudah is moving like he never tore his Achilles in Week 1 last season.

If Okudah can stay healthy for even 15 games, he should prove to be the best defensive back in Detroit. The (hopeful) upgrades at safety can only help Okudah’s mindset in coverage, where he’s often been tentative due to being too worried about everyone else around him.

Taylor Decker:

(AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

Can the longest-tenured member of the team have a breakout season? Absolutely.

Decker missed the first half of 2021 with a hand injury. Upon his return, he was one of the best all-around left tackles in the NFL. With stability around him – left guard Jonah Jackson earned a Pro Bowl nod – Decker can take his game to the next level in his seventh season in Detroit.

At 28, Decker is just getting to the age where most tackles really hit their stride. He’s cut way back on the oddball terrible plays that held him out of the top echelon of tackles earlier in his career. A Pro Bowl berth is very realistic and an All-Pro nod is certainly possible if Decker plays a full season the way he finished last year.

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