Anthony Zettel was not supposed to come to Penn State. Despite holding offers from power programs across the country, Zettel was widely considered to be choosing between his two hometown Michigan schools, but the 4-star defensive end spurned them both to commit to Joe Paterno. Thank god for that.
Despite his impressive recruiting pedigree, Zettel was mostly mired in the rotation for his first two seasons, but even there, he made an immediate impact. Playing in all 12 games his freshman campaign, Zettel finished third on the team with 4 sacks. It was against Navy that the redshirt freshman turned heads, with a six tackles, including two sacks, in eleven plays. As a sophomore, Zettel again played a reserve role, but again impressed: 4 more sacks this time was good enough for second on the Nittany Lion defense, and he added an interception, too.
Then, Bob Shoop and Sean Spencer came to town, and everything changed.
With the sanctions finally taking their toll, and DaQuan Jones moving on to the NFL, Penn State took their strong-side defensive end and turned him into a highly undersized defensive tackle (raising some eyebrows in the process), and good lord, did that move pay off.
Playing the 2014 season at around 270 pounds (up 20 or so from his days at defensive end), Anthony Zettel began his transformation into the roundhouse-kickin', tree-tacklin' son of a bitch we all know and love. Given the freedom to operate--and plenty of one-on-one matchups--thanks to the one-two punch of Austin Johnson and (a suddenly resurgent) Deion Barnes flanking him to either side, Zettel had one of the best seasons anyone has ever had in the blue and white. His 17 TFLs led the team. His 8 sacks led the team.
Oh, and his three interceptions led the team. And he was third in passes defensed and break-ups, too. Yes, Anthony Zettel was the run-stuffing, QB-sacking, shutdown corner a defensive tackle the likes of which I, at least, had never seen. His pick-six against Ohio State keyed a furious comeback that took the future national champs to overtime, and would be remembered as one of the greatest moments in Penn State history if the ending had turned out just a bit better. And oh, that deadly spin move. At the end of the season, Zettel was on everybody's all-Big Ten team, and it was a damn travesty that he wasn't an All-American.
Now, that 2014 year was unquestionably the high point in his Penn State career, but it was going to be damn near impossible to repeat his junior season. That said, Zettel's emergence as a force arguably helped free up opportunities for Johnson and Carl Nassib to have their own spectacular years, so the numbers don't tell the whole story. And oh, right, he played most of the season in the wake of his father's death. Which, you know, probably weighed on him a bit. And it's not like Zettel had a bad year: another 10 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 6 more pass break-ups, all culminating in a 3rd-team all Big Ten nod. But overshadowed is what you get what you're lined up between Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib. Unfortunately, he cost himself plenty of money in the process--Zettel probably would've been a 2nd or 3rd round pick if he'd matched the productivity of his junior season.
At the combine, Zettel showed up as a tweener in a league increasingly focused on size from defensive tackles. At 6'4, 277, Zettel acquitted himself just fine, running the 40 in 4.81 seconds, and putting up 28 reps in the bench press--both in the top 10 among defensive linemen. But it's the size that may be Zettel's undoing: At just 277 pounds, Zettel's not big enough to play 3-4 defensive end, and you're hard-pressed to find, even in the 4-3, many DTs under 300 pounds. You won't go far in life selling Zettel short, and his motor remains one of the best in the class, but even in a pass-happy NFL, it's hard to find too many 3rd-down pass-rushing DT specialists.
What You're Getting
Anthony Zettel's NFL future is tough to predict. On the one hand, he's shown that he can be a productive player both at defensive end and tackle, that he's versatile enough to lead a team in sacks and interceptions, and that his measurables match the play. In other words, he passes the eye test, and he's pretty damn good on paper, too.
If he were about 15 pounds heavier, or had the length to line up outside, this wouldn't be a debate: he'd be a pass-rushing interior lineman, who you maybe have to sub out in heavy packages, but who'll be, at the very least, a successful role player for the better part of the decade. Unfortunately, Zettel isn't 290 pounds, he's barely pushing 275, and a great first step and a hell of motor only gets you so far when you're going up against interior lineman 50+ pounds heavier on a routine basis.
On the flip side, low expectations might be a good thing for Zettel, who's projected to go somewhere between the 4th and 6th rounds by most experts. If Zettel feasts on roster fringe in training camp and preseason games, as he almost certainly will, he'll have a real chance to play his way onto someone's team, even if it's just a practice squad or reserve role early on. Zettel is very much someone you should never bet against, and he's a physical freak--even as a white boy from rural Michigan.
If there's an archetype that Zettel fills, it's the uber-productive college player whose skill set doesn't translate super well to the next level. It would be easy to sit here as someone who's watched him excel, for the past four years, in whatever role he's been given, and tell you that the suits are wrong, but it's really hard to argue with the conventional wisdom. The step back he took last season doesn't help, but again, we're talking about someone whose versatility, motor, and drive will carry him even further than his raw talent alone. He's been undersized his whole career, and nobody could've expected how well he'd play at DT.
Yes, Zettel's a classic tweener, but he'll do everything he can to force his way onto your roster. He only projects to role player, but it's a role he can absolutely excel in. And maybe they'll only be sporadic, like they were his first couple years at Penn State, but he'll make some big plays in some big spots. If you give him the chance.