In 2017, the Detroit Lions’ defensive line was a mess. A combination of early injuries and poor depth led to a heavy rotation of players that probably shouldn’t have been out there as often as they were. As a result, the Lions’ defense became a sieve. Opponents were racking up rushing yards, while quarterbacks had all day to sit in the pocket and find receivers who eventually got open.
But there was one player along the defensive line that actually rose to the occasion more often than not: Second-year defensive end Anthony Zettel. Let’s take a closer look at Zettel’s play in 2017 and see what his future holds.
Expectations for 2017
As a sixth-round rookie, Zettel didn’t play much of a role with the team in 2016. He played in just 215 total snaps, resulting in 13 tackles and 1.0 sacks.
That being said, Zettel was expected to contribute at least as much in 2017. The Lions barely addressed their big need at defensive end, adding only Cornelius Washington in free agency and Pat O’Connor in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.
Zettel may have started the offseason behind Washington, Kerry Hyder and perhaps Armonty Bryant on the depth chart, but none of those players were exactly good enough to keep Zettel on the bench forever. Expectations were overall still pretty low for Zettel, but the belief was that he’d at least contribute as a rotational player in 2017.
Actual role in 2017
2017 stats: 16 games (16 starts): 43 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 FF
PFF grade: 79.9 (41 of 106 edge defenders)
Then the offseason happened. Every little piece of news seemed to pave the way for Zettel to carve out a much bigger role in 2017. Kerry Hyder tore his Achilles in the preseason opener. Armonty Bryant received a four-game suspension. Ezekiel Ansah started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
All of those events pushed Zettel into a starting role in the preseason and he never relented. He emerged as a solid, but not spectacular, option opposite Ansah. At times—especially early on—he seemed like a legitimate pass rushing option. Other times, Zettel’s inexperience was blatantly obvious.
Even though his PFF grade was well above average, there was something that just seemed a little disappointing about his season, even though expectations were low entering the year. Zettel quickly picked up 4.0 sacks in the first four games, but would only have 2.5 in the final 12 contests.
Still, Zettel deserves a lot of credit for becoming a makeshift starter at the beginning of the year, and playing at an acceptable level for a second-year sixth-round pick.
Outlook for 2018
Contract status: Signed through 2019
It’s hard to know exactly what Zettel’s role will be in 2018, and obviously the defense’s scheme change is going to play heavily into that.
So far this offseason, defensive end remains largely ignored in free agency. Though Detroit will likely get Kerry Hyder back from injury, Cornelius Washington is still signed through the 2018 season, and free agent acquisition Devon Kennard could play along the defensive line in situational downs, Zettel is still in a pretty good position to play some sort of role with the team in 2018.
That being said, it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see him spend the year on the practice squad, either. The NFL Draft is still ahead, and if the Lions spend a high resource on an edge defender, Zettel would be pushed down the depth chart again. And as a largely inexperienced NFL player, a scheme change could put Zettel at a disadvantage compared to his peers.
It’s hard to imagine a 16-game starter get demoted so drastically after an above-average year, but the truth is Zettel was never supposed to take on the kind of role he did in 2017. The Lions would be best served with Zettel as a rotational player and special teams contributor. But Zettel has beaten the odds before, and he’s proven himself to be capable in emergency situations. So anything is really possible for the former Nittany Lion in 2018.
What will Anthony Zettel’s role be in 2018?
This poll is closed
Off the roster/practice squad