Anthony Zettel's latest athletic feat? Emerging on Lions' defensive line

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He put his hands on the ground, eyed the snap count and when he saw the ball move, Anthony Zettel jumped up out of his stance. In less than a second, he seemed to blow by the offensive tackle, whether it was Cyrus Kouandjio or Greg Robinson.

There are caveats here. It came in individual drills. It came during practice against his own teammates where contact is somewhat limited, instead of against opponents who are going to try to flatten him. But some of the things the Detroit Lions needed to see from their second-year defensive end were obvious.

He was leaner. He was faster. He was stronger. His moves, frankly, were much better. The athleticism he previously showed tackling trees, throwing baseballs 94 mph and training in MMA started to show. For a point during the early portion of training camp, he seemed unable to be blocked in the one-on-one drill the Lions use to refine offensive and defensive line drills.

"I've seen him become a better player," defensive end Kerry Hyder said. "I'm not sure how much he's gotten better, but I've seen him be sharper, faster. I've seen him be stronger. He worked really hard in the offseason and it's noticeable. I'm looking forward to seeing him in the preseason."

Hyder should understand this progression better than most. A year ago at this time, he was a roster afterthought, doing everything he could to stay relevant and put himself in position to make the Lions coaches have to keep him. By the end of the preseason, it worked. Hyder became a breakout player in 2016, leading Detroit with eight sacks.

Every year since Teryl Austin took over the defense, the Lions appear to have a player come somewhat out of nowhere to be a pass-rushing difference-maker on the line. A lot of that has to do with the team's defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, and how he pushes the linemen. But the evidence is there, with a career year from George Johnson in 2014, a brief-but-tangible evolution of Devin Taylor in 2015 and Hyder last season.

There's a chance Zettel becomes that this season. The second-year pro out of Penn State has flashed more than any other defensive lineman so far in training camp. He's taken advantage of injuries to Ezekiel Ansah and Cornelius Washington, and taken reps mostly with the first team through camp.

To prepare for this possibility in the offseason, he went to Evolution Sports Institute in Pittsburgh, where he trained with other Penn State alumni in the NFL and lived with his best friend, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James. While there, he focused on getting off the ball and all the drills Kocurek ran him through during last season.

He also focused on his body, dropping between 5 and 6 percent of his body fat to make him the leanest he's ever been. That, he believes, helped him with his overall speed and has allowed him to play faster. This season, he also seems to be focusing more on playing just defensive end instead of being a hybrid end-tackle -- although that could change at some point as injuries inevitably happen on the defensive line.

"I think losing a lot of body fat, flexibility and knowing the game with experience, I think that all translates to being a better football player," Zettel said. "It wasn't like I all of a sudden was like, 'Wow, I got better.'

"It was six months of training, got here and realized I was faster on film."

He's faster to any observer watching, too, and the Lions are hoping that translates to the success many other depth defensive ends have had during their time in Detroit after working with Kocurek.

Detroit won't necessarily say it, either, but considering the team's pass-rush woes last season, the Lions might be counting on it after a 13-tackle, one-sack rookie year in which he was part of the rotation but not much more.

"He's working at it all the time," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's trying to take care of all the little things, so, we see improvement already. So, we'll see what happens when we get into ball games. But he knows what he's doing.

"He has a good feel for it and we expect to see obviously some improvement over last year for certain."