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Making sense of the Detroit Lions’ move to waive Anthony Zettel

We break down why the Lions may have decided to cut the young defensive end.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

When the Detroit Lions decided to waive Anthony Zettel for waiver claim Romeo Okwara, it sent shockwaves down the fanbase. It wasn’t all that surprising that the Lions put in a claim for a defensive end, this is exactly the time when a team like the Lions should be searching for players that can help them along the defensive line, and our good friend Brett Whitefield from Pro Football Focus even predicted the Lions would make this move:

But the decision to cut Anthony Zettel seemed like a puzzling move, especially considering the young edge rusher was second on the team with 6.5 sacks just last year as a 16-game starter.

So what went wrong? Why did the Lions make such a callous move when their defensive line was already so lowly regarded? Let’s break down some theories.

Anthony Zettel wasn’t very good

Many point to Zettel’s sack total as evidence he was an up-and-coming defender improving every day. While 6.5 sacks is admittedly pretty good for a second-year, former sixth-round pick, anybody who remembers the 2017 season will also remember how Zettel essentially disappeared in the second half of the season. He had exactly 0.5 sacks in the final seven games, and was definitely part of the reason why Lions fans were clamoring all offseason for some pass rushing help.

His overall Pro Football Focus grade was okay (70.7) but his pass rushing grade was not (60.6). He was also just not a very versatile guy. He’s not someone you’d want to drop in to coverage, and we saw plenty of time he had trouble setting the edge—either falling victim to rollouts or play-action.

Back during Week 3 of the preseason, head coach Matt Patricia said something very telling.

“I would say the roster in general, a philosophy for us would always be if you only do one thing on this roster, it better be extremely well and at an extremely high level.”

Anthony Zettel could only do one thing on this roster, and to be frank, he didn’t do it an extremely high level.

Anthony Zettel wasn’t a scheme fit

Bouncing off that last quote, it’s clear that Patricia values versatility in his scheme. A defensive end isn’t just expected to pass rush or run defend. He’s expected to be able to line up in the middle of the line or occasionally drop back as an off-the-ball linebacker. The more you can do to make the defense unpredictable, the better.

Granted Zettel has only had two years in this league and just an offseason under Patricia’s new scheme, but it was very clear by the end of the preseason the Lions just did not trust Zettel in multiple role, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.

They got a long look at him. Zettel actually started training camp as the starting right defensive end while Ezekiel Ansah worked his way off the Physically Unable to Perform list. They even gave Zettel an extended look in the preseason finale—he had more snaps than any other defensive end. They tried him on the left end, they tried him on the right end, they tried him in a three-tech, five-tech, and just about everywhere else on the defensive line. They gave him a shot, and they clearly didn’t like what they saw.

Zettel’s replacement, on the other hand, has already flashed some versatility with the Giants. Just watch this film breakdown of Okwara’s game where he shows both pass-rushing abilities and looks comfortable as a coverage linebacker, too.

Da’Shawn Hand is going to get serious playing time

While we’re talking about players with promising versatility, Lions fourth-round pick Da’Shawn Hand showed it at every chance he got. Hand got plenty of time playing the interior, the edge and just about anywhere else the Lions thought he may be helpful.

Hand has the added benefit of coming from Alabama, where they run a very similar scheme to Patricia, and they even have a defensive line coach familiar with Hand’s game.

We had a sneaking suspicion that Hand was going to get a good chunk of playing time when he was out there getting rotational snaps with the starters halfway through training camp, but this move all but confirms the Lions’ confidence in the rookie.

But why Zettel and not another position?

This was the most common complaint of the move and an understandable one. The Lions aren’t very deep on the defensive line, while it seems like they have a surplus of guys at wide receiver and offensive line, even though the talent there doesn’t seem to warrant the high numbers. So why not add Okwara at the expense of a receiver or offensive lineman.

Let’s start with wide receivers, because both Brandon Powell and Bradley Marquez were both a bit surprising to see on the initial 53-man roster.

The fact that both remain on the roster is very telling. For Powell, it means the Lions are definitely afraid of losing him to a waiver claim. I don’t really see how Powell factors into the 2018 team—I wouldn’t be surprised to see him inactive on game days—but the Lions clearly like his potential beyond that.

However, I think this says a lot more about Bradley Marquez. Marquez made the team based on his special teams contributions, and the fact that he’s still around after a bunch of additions and subtractions since the 53-man roster was created, I think it’s safe to say that Marquez isn’t only here to stay, but he’s very likely to be active on Sundays (or Mondays) as part of the special teams units.

Bob Quinn has always made special teams a priority, so maybe this isn’t be as surprising as it seems.

With the offensive line, however, it’s a little tougher to justify. Outside of their starting five, the Lions have Kenny Wiggins, Joe Dahl, Tyrell Crosby and newly-added Andrew Donnal at their expense. Nine offensive linemen are a lot, especially when you consider the Lions have another on their practice squad (Leo Koloamatangi).

But it’s hard to point to the expendable one among the group. They probably still want to see what they have in Donnal, and they aren’t going to get rid of fifth-round pick Crosby. Wiggins and Dahl didn’t have great preseasons, but their position versatility and experience working with the first-team offensive line are valuable right now, especially since we don’t know the current status of starting right guard T.J. Lang, who didn’t play a single snap in the preseason.

Overall, cutting Zettel is still a surprising move, but it’s one we should probably get used to. The defensive front seven is definitely in rebuild mode, and it wasn’t really any good to begin with. Nothing should make that clearer than this eye-popping stat from MLive’s Kyle Meinke:

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