One of the most intriguing potential options from the Mid-American Conference in the 2023 draft cycle is off the market, as former Akron defensive end Zach Morton signed with the Detroit Lions on Saturday night.
The news was first reported by Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network via Twitter.
Morton, who played his high school football just a mile or so down the road from Ford Field at Cass Tech, originally started his career at Syracuse as a reserve defensive lineman. He appeared in just six games for the Orange due to a variety of complications; Morton lost all of 2018 to a knee injury after redshirting in 2017, then was stuck on the bench in 2019 and 2020.
A transfer to Akron in the last year of Tom Arth’s tenure proved to be the opportunity he was looking for, starting all 12 games in the 2021 season and finishing with 33 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and a pick-six.
Akron had a wholesale coaching change in 2022 with the hiring of Joe Moorhead, and it resulted in Morton losing some run to others as part of a rotation, but in the end it worked out for the best. Morton acclimated beautifully, finding his finishing stroke in a campaign where he hauled in one less total tackle (32), but picked up 6.5 more tackles-for-loss and three more sacks.
Morton lacks in productivity over the course of his full career, but he makes up for it with a freak athletic profile.
Morton stands at six-foot-four, 261 lbs., and has a blazing-quick first step, with both his 10-yard dash (1.59 seconds) and his flying 20-yard numbers (2.6 seconds) hitting over 9.5 in Relative Athletic Score. His explosion is the highlight part of his game; he is able to combine his explosion with his short-area burst and sheer lateral agility to get to the line of scrimmage or behind it in order to stop the run or pick up the sack.
His all-around Relative Athletic Score is immensely high, coming in as one of the top 10 defensive end prospects in this year’s draft class, and top five overall in the Mid-American Conference. The numbers are immediately comparable to current NFL starters such as Montez Sweat and Payton Turner, which are extremely encouraging to hear as a UDFA.
He’s a ball of clay with raw instinct who in the right hands, can be molded into a subpackage specialist on the defensive line. Thankfully for Morton, Detroit has a great reputation for developing such products in recent years; former first-round pick Charles Harris revitalized his career upon arrival in the Motor City, while fellow waiver wire claims John Cominsky and Isaiah Buggs also found a role. Of course, James Houston IV also had a breakout year as a practice squad call-up, collecting eight sacks in seven games.
That’s all pie-in-the-sky at the moment, though. For now, Morton’s most immediate path to the roster or practice squad will be via special teams, which he has plenty of experience with dating back to Syracuse. Morton blocked two kicks as a Zip, so he’s got something going there.
Morton will have a tough time to get on the 53-man roster for what is a suddenly resurgent Lions squad; he’d likely have to beat out Julian and/or Romeo Okwara in order to find a role on the 53-man roster. At his relatively advanced age (24), he’ll have to prove his versatility right away.