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Underrated Anthony Zettel is a beacon of hope on Lions’ poor defensive line

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The defensive line is bad, but imagine where it would be without Anthony Zettel.

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Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions made yet another move on their defensive line, cutting short-term replacement Jacquies Smith to give George Johnson a second try on the roster. General manager Bob Quinn has been endlessly rotating the depth chart at defensive end, desperately hoping to find someone, anyone, that can help their ineffective pass rush.

Here’s a list of in-season transactions the Lions have made at defensive end alone this year.

  • 9/20: Signed George Johnson, waived Alex Barrett
  • 9/22: Signed Alex Barrett to practice squad, released Earl Okin
  • 10/9: Released Armonty Bryant
  • 10/11: Signed Datone Jones
  • 10/18: Signed Jacquies Smith, released Datone Jones and George Johnson
  • 10/28: Released Jacquies Smith
  • 10/30: Signed Jacquies Smith
  • 11/14: Signed George Johnson, released Jacquies Smith

Detroit is desperate for some help along the defensive line, but just hasn’t been able to settle on that fourth body in the lineup.

It’s not all that surprising Detroit has struggled, considering defensive end was considered a huge weakness going into the 2017 offseason and the Lions did little to address that need—just signing rotational backup Cornelius Washington to a small two-year deal. It only got worse when 2016 breakout Kerry Hyder was lost for the year during their preseason opener.

The Lions’ hopes, it seemed, were on former Pro Bowler Ezekiel Ansah to return to form. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened either.

But from the ashes of despair, a hero has emerged. 2016 sixth-round draft pick Anthony Zettel is having a breakout year and has easily been one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL.

With very little help from his other linemen (outside of maybe A’Shawn Robinson), Zettel has been a one-man production machine. He leads the team both in sacks (6.0) and tackles for loss (4). And we’re not talking about clean-up sacks, either. When Zettel hasn’t been accumulating sacks, he’s been generating pressures. Even Pro Football Focus loves Zettel.

This week, Zettel made PFF’s Sophomore Standouts list, made for players who are having bounce-back seasons after ineffective rookie years. Here’s what they had to say about Zettel:

Adding to his development, Zettel has improved his pass-rush productivity score from 4.7 to 11.1 as a sophomore, recording a team-high 30 total pressures (21 hurries, two hits, seven sacks) on his 207 pass-rush snaps.

Similarly, what was previously a flaw in Zettel’s game has become one of his strengths. After finishing with a 48.2 grade against the run last season, he ranks 19th among edge defenders with his 83.7 run defense grade.

That run defense score is what is most underrated about Zettel’s game. For a player that made his first career start in 2017, Zettel has shown an incredible amount of discipline holding the edge and making plays on elusive running backs. It’s made him the well-rounded player that has earned him an overall PFF grade of 83.4, good for 20th-best among all NFL edge defenders.

For a sixth-round player in just his second season, Zettel has displayed an excellent understanding of the defense and the Lions seem to be getting the most they can out of that draft pick. Credit, once again, to Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who is making a living out of developing young defensive lineman.