In 2015, Penn State's defensive line had two outstanding performers. One was Carl Nassib, the former walk-on and feel-good story who suddenly was nipping at the heels of Ohio State's Joey Bosa in the conversation for top pass rusher in the Big Ten. He even came packaged with broadcast fodder in the form of being the younger brother of Eli Manning's backup quarterback Ryan Nassib. Then there was Austin Johnson, the massive force in the middle who could stuff the run, take on double teams, and had the athleticism to play like a much smaller player.
The forgotten man on the line was Anthony Zettel, the defensive line's star player from 2014. After that breakout season, Zettel seemed poised to dominate the Big Ten as a senior en route to cementing himself as a high draft pick. But it never materialized. The combination of hype for Johnson and Nassib and Zettel's slow start to the season left him as something of a third wheel for the 2015 Nittany Lions. It certainly was not a bad season: 46 tackles (11 for a loss) and 4 sacks were a solid showing. But it lacked the playmaking flair of his 2014 campaign, where he had 17 tackles for a loss, 8 sacks, and 3 interceptions.
This likely means that Zettel will be the third Penn State defensive lineman off the board during this week's NFL Draft. It also means that the team drafting him could be getting a steal.
Zettel brings a number of things to the table for an interested NFL team. One is that he is good against both the run and the pass. The keys to his play are a quick first step and good use of the hands, and those skills work against all run plays. He's also a high motor player, and this will be on display immediately assuming he begins in a limited role as a rotational defensive end. The versatility he developed after playing both defensive end and defensive tackle for Penn State should not be overlooked, as NFL teams are looking more and more for players who can move around on the line.
The negatives for Zettel are the dip in production in 2015 and the lack of high end strength or speed. The former should not be an issue for teams looking at Zettel: while it was not as strong as his 2014 season, his 2015 season was excellent when you consider the players around him and the adversity he faced in playing through the death of his father. And the latter is a legitimate worry, but Zettel is exactly the type of player to carve out a significant role in the NFL despite that. His quickness around the line will still allow him to disrupt plays even if he is not the most agile in pursuit of the ball carrier. And while he is not the type of player to take on double teams, he can hold his own in many one-on-one blocking situations.
Johnson is a talented defensive lineman, but probably a nose tackle in the NFL who will bide his time eating up blocks to let his teammates flourish. Nassib is a great story and a talented pass rusher, but there are undoubtedly concerns that he's a one-trick pony for some teams. That leaves Zettel, who I have little doubt will make the team that drafts him very happy.