Discover more from Go Long
Zach Sieler, the muscle in Miami
Shattering records is fun. This team is must-see TV. But to win a Super Bowl? The Miami Dolphins will need to deliver haymakers at the line of scrimmage. Their heavyweight was made for this fight.
The heavy metal blared. Always. Zach Sieler and the other outcasts at Ferris State lifted weights to an ear-splitting stream of Metallica, Five Finger Death Punch and Slipknot.
This weight room consisted of three squat racks, two benches and only one functioning barbell. Before loading up grimy 45-pound plates, they’d need to roll the bar to make sure this was the one that was actually straight. You know, so it wouldn’t fall off their back mid-squat. All equipment was from the 80s.
“A concrete dungeon,” Sieler says, “in the basement.”
There were no windows, but there did appear to be mold and rust and, guess what?
He loved every second of it.
Sieler glows at this memory more than any other. Back when he was half of himself. Long before Sieler was this fully-bearded, 6-foot-6, 300-pound colossus in the middle of the Miami Dolphins’ defense, he was a beanpole. He headed to Division-II Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich., at barely north of 200 pounds. Ferris State let Sieler walk onto the team simply because he was tall and could give them scout-team looks. So, this was his gameday. He’d lift at 4 a.m., before 6:30/7 a.m. meetings. Practice would last 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., then he’d head to class and lift again at 6:30 p.m.
This glorious “dungeon” was the exact opposite of what his pro contemporaries enjoyed in the SEC and Big Ten. Right down to the lack of a cushion on that one barbell for squats. Each set, he’d scrape up his neck. Ferris State didn’t only lack equipment, hell, they didn’t have a strength coach back then. Sieler was forced to do his own research, piecing together workouts from MusclePharm and Bodybuilding.com. Once, he and buddies tried Rich Piana’s legendary “Eight-Hour Arms.” An insane workout that features 16 mini workouts every half-hour over an eight-hour period. (Piana promised to add a full inch to your arms in one day.)
Sieler only lasted an hour. He and his teammates “couldn’t move.” It was awesome.
“Those were some of the best memories,” Sieler says. “It was just a grind. I’m closer to those guys than anybody I’ve ever been with. To this day.”
Go Long is supported by our readers — 100 percent. No ads. No corporate overlords. Our independent longform journalism depends on you.
New here? We’d love to have you join our community:
The result: One of most unlikely rises in the NFL. From Ferris State to the Baltimore Ravens to these Dolphins, Sieler has developed into one of the sport’s best interior defensive linemen.
With anvils for biceps, he’d sure make the deceased Piana proud. Now, Zach Sieler is everything this high-voltage roster needs. The endless reels of 70-yard touchdowns and backflips and selfies and choreographed celebrations from “Remember the Titans” are fun as hell. There’s no better viewing experience in the NFL than the schematic symphony conducted by the hilariously self-deprecating Mike McDaniel. Football now has four levels of speed: high school, college, NFL, and Dolphins. Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane have accounted for the five fastest plays in the league.
Miami has the second-most yards (2,992) through six games in NFL history, trailing only the 2000 Rams (3,056).
Miami is the first team since the 1964 Buffalo Bills to lead the league in both passing and rushing yards per game through Week 6.
Miami has 30 touchdowns vs. only 14 punts.
All while most of the NFL struggles to muster any offense.
Yet as every electrifying offense in the history of the sport has learned — the ’98 Vikings, ’99 Rams, ’07 Patriots, etc. — games in January are… different. Games can darken into street fights. Whether these Dolphins are equipped to win that type of game will justifiably become a hot topic of debate as this 2023 season wears on. The Buffalo Bills did smash its AFC East rival. In Sieler, they’ve got more than a puncher’s chance to win future brawls because he’s different than all the headliners. All the star power on this roster.
The Dolphins didn’t select Sieler high in the NFL Draft, nor did they deal a bounty of picks for him.
They’ll need this alligator hunter all the same.
“There’s guys on every team that, obviously, they’re not the big-name guys, but they’re the guys that just keep it together,” Sieler says. “Glue guys, locker room guys, that make just as many plays. Your name’s not out there, which to me I love that. That's why it’s a game like no other game. It takes 11 players. You might have a Tyreek that’s crazy fast and you might have a tall receiver that’s able to go up and get it. Everyone’s got a different attribute.”
He grew up with all of 2,400 residents in Pinckney, Mich. Fifteen kids played on the JV team; 25 on Varsity. A few grads had previously gone on to play Division III ball, but little else. College coaches were not flocking to his games and the lack of interest, he admits, was “disheartening.” But looking back, it was understandable. Sieler was oddly shaped for a defensive lineman at 6-4, 205. Cutting weight to wrestle ending up hurting him as a football recruit.
His junior year, Sieler cut from 225 to 189.
His senior year, he got back up to “205’ish” and wrestled at 215. Sieler loved football but admits wrestling was “it.” A lifestyle here in the Midwest. Thus, he has no regrets. His father was a backup on the Olympic team. Sieler was still able to get nearly all four years of college at Ferris State paid for thanks to a slew of scholarships and good grades. The school’s engineering program was also enticing.
Still, he didn’t touch the field until his third year.
Blissful ignorance helped. All along, the NFL was the goal. (“What kid doesn’t want to go play in the NFL?”) In reality, Ferris State’s coaches didn’t view Sieler as anything more than a practice body. This wasn’t a Cody Mauch situation. No grandiose master plan. When Mauch stepped onto the North Dakota State campus at 220, the school had a long-term vision. As he detailed to Go Long, Mauch fully maximized his unlimited meal plan. And facilities. This was an FCS power that had beefed up linemen before. Mauch put on 85 pounds and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round.
Sieler, in Year 1, was slapped around by upperclassmen in practice.
Even worse? He felt unwanted. The walk-on was told — plainly — that he was an ideal scout-team player because of his height. At 6 foot 4, he could imitate taller players on the other team.
“The coaches didn’t care about me that much,” Sieler says. “That is all they ever saw me as. Never really expected me to get on the field. There was some, ‘Hey, we got a kid from Florida. We got a kid that just transferred from Navy. I don’t know if you're ever going to see the field here, but we’d love to keep you on as a scout team guy.’”
That ensuing spring is exactly when he bonded with players — “misfits,” he calls them — in the same forgotten bucket as him.
“Dudes,” he admits, “that probably shouldn’t be out there.”
Together, Sieler, Derek Ash, Jon Metz and a few others turned that “dungeon” into a sanctuary. Maybe they’d never see the field. Maybe Ferris State didn’t have a strength coach or a nutritionist. Screw it. They could eat and lift and eat some more. A whole new world to Sieler, who was only accustomed to losing pounds to make weight on the mat. He meticulously researched how to make meals on a tight budget and — since there wasn’t an Aldi — visited Save-a-Lot all the time. His go-to move? Buying steaks that expired in one day. Those always sold on the cheap. For dinner, he’d cook those up with some rice. For breakfast, he drink a cup of dry oatmeal with water.
He didn’t even heat these oats up, either.
Yes, Sieler confirms. It was disgusting.
Other mornings, he’d drink Walmart egg whites straight out of the carton. Sort of like Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs out of a glass ahead of his heavyweight bout with Apollo Creed.
“A little bit more modernized, I guess,” he says.
Anything to pack on the poundage. “Cheap poundage,” he clarifies. Of course, anybody can eat. And eat. Sieler knew he needed to transform this into muscle. So whenever he wasn’t doing construction, landscaping or mowing each offseason, Sieler trained. His crew would literally need every 45-pound plate available to squat 550, 600, 650 pounds.
When Ash first met Sieler, he saw someone who resembled “a long, wet noodle.” He describes Sieler as “gangly,” as “skinny fat,” as a kid who “didn’t have any muscle definition.” The two of them were both buried on the defensive line depth chart and decided to live in the weight room, starting each workout at 4 a.m.
Ash never had a workout partner stronger than him. Until Sieler.
“All of a sudden I’m like, ‘Dang, this kid’s getting f--king strong. I can’t keep up,’” Ash says. “Sure enough, we get to the camp and this kid’s put on 60 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He climbed up that depth chart real fast and booted me right out of my position group. … I went over to offense, played some tight end.”
Multiple workouts per day. Hammering their arms. He, too, is nostalgic for those days. They felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger because this is what a weight room should look like. Smell like.
“Man, what I’d do to go back to lift in that place,” Ash says. “It was underfunded, under-equipped, it didn’t have windows. Didn’t have ventilation. It just had probably mold and sweat and rust all over the bar. You couldn’t wear a white shirt in there because you’d be coming out brown.”
This all launched Ash’s own career. He nerded out on the science of weightlifting, researching workouts on YouTube the night before their sessions. Today, Ash is the strength and conditioning coach at Cedar Springs Public Schools, about 45 minutes north of Ferris. Even when their college finally did hire a strength coach their last year, the two would still make a point to do their own thing. One would screenshot a MusclePharm workout from Instagram, text it to the other and they’d go balls to the wall the next morning.
In a year and half, Sieler added 45 pounds. His second year, he tweaked his finger — knew he wasn’t going to play — and kept throwing weight around. By Year 3, Sieler was 270 pounds and finally played when a teammate suffered an injury. In limited action, he had 6.5 sacks. This got him on scholarship, and Sieler’s collegiate career took off. He had 19 ½ sacks in Year 4, and another seven his final year. By the time he left Ferris State, he was 290 pounds. NFL dreams became real. One Ferris State alum, Jason Vander Laan, bounced around the league. Another, Justin Zimmer, played on the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line. Ferris State also played Grand Valley State, the school that produced one of the best edge rushers in the sport: New England’s Matthew Judon.
Sieler did have engineering offers from GM and Chrysler on the table. This was also a passion.
Heading into his final season at Ferris, he interned 70 to 80 hours per week at the Sterling Stamping Chrysler plan in Detroit. The drive ate up so much time — he was getting up at 3 a.m. — that Sieler decided to crash at a buddy’s studio apartment in the city. All summer, he slept on the couch and saved himself two hours of driving each day. Valuable time Sieler used at a nearby L.A. Fitness.
He could’ve earned a solid salary designing the under bodies of Suburbans and Yukon for Chevy GMC. But, of course, he needed to give the NFL a shot… even if he wasn’t exacty a diehard fan of any team. Sieler preferred episodes of Dragon Ball Z over watching the pros. Or hunting. Or fishing. He played fantasy football but, in the locker room, often leaned over to ask Ash for advice on who to draft and who to start.
Says Ash: “I don’t know if you would catch him watching too many games on a Sunday if he wasn't in the league. He'd be busy doing hunting, fishing, or tinkering outside in the garage.”
The Ravens made Sieler the first player ever drafted out of Ferris State with the 238th overall pick in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. After two seasons, the Ravens let him go. Miami has been reaping the rewards ever since with Sieler ascending each year: 2020 (48 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to 2021 (62 tackles, two sacks) to 2022 (70 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to what’s beginning to look like the season of his life.
True, he’s always been into the outdoors most. Specifically, hunting. Sieler and his wife headed to Africa for their honeymoon, and then to New Zealand to hunt red stag. Hannah never hunted before meeting Zach but quickly fell in love herself. The No. 1 animal on Zach’s mind this day is elk. Whenever he’s done playing football, one of the first things he’ll do is take a two- or three-week trip out west. Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, wherever.
And down in Florida? He enjoys hog hunting.
“They’re very feisty,” Sieler says. “It’s a different battle. You can’t just sit there and wait sometimes there’s so many.”
For us novices, here’s how it works. Your dogs “flush ‘em out,” he explains. They’ll chase and corner the boar in one place, while barking to signal their location. That’s when Sieler will either do the honors with a knife or — if the dogs are getting in the way — tie the hog up, load him onto the truck, put him down later. Sieler knows hunting isn’t for everyone. He sees all sides to the conversation. Heck, his Mom has been a vegetarian her entire life.
He also knows this love for hunting helps him as a football player.
Obviously, anyone capable of taking down a boar brings an element of nasty.
But he also points to the patience of mainstream hunting. Sitting in the woods. Staying calm. Waiting to strike. There are parallels, and all of this is exactly what the Dolphins need. In August, Sieler was rewarded with a three-year, $30.75 million deal. He moves exceptionally well for a human his size. In the wild card loss to Buffalo last year, Sieler scooped up a Josh Allen fumble and returned it for a touchdown in one fell swoop of athleticism uncommon for any 300-pounder. We’ve seen more such movement this fall, such as getting on his high horse to track down the mobile Tyrod Taylor. He got to the QB near the sideline, dove, tripped him up, forced an incompletion.
Six games in, he’s playing the best football of his life. Sieler is already up to 22 tackles and four sacks. Two of which came in that 31-16 win over the Giants. (The Dolphins had Sieler mic’d up.)
Last week, against Carolina, he shook free to sack Bryce Young on third and 18.
Ash knows his friend’s personality gives this star-studded team balance.
“He doesn’t really care what his role is or what he’s asked to do,” Ash says. “He is going to do it at the best of his ability and really just take ownership of that role. Even going back to his days at the Ravens where he probably felt like, ‘Oh man, I could really help them out here.’ You never heard him complain once about playing time or ‘this person’s getting more reps because they were drafted higher’ or any of those things. He just kept working.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s tight with another ass-kicker you know well: Wyatt Teller. The Cleveland Browns’ mauling guard was actually hunting with Sieler in Florida when he took down that 10-foot gator. They share a love for football’s violence. Yet, there’s no hesitation. The true key to his rise? Sieler cites his “mentals.” How he thinks through those 60 snaps in a game. Sieler takes technique to heart, and credits Dolphins defensive line coach Austin Clark for helping him see a new game.
What Sieler loves most about the NFL is that any lineman, any play can get the best of you.
Each snap is its own game within the game. Sieler processes all film study, scans the line for all potential clues, the ball is snapped and — as he says — “chaos ensues.”
Here, he breaks down a typical play:
“You get the defensive call, you get the front, you get lined up, you get ‘OK, they’ve got this package in, they’ve got this in, there’s this down-and-distance on this part of the field. You take all that in — ‘alright’— and then that last second, you just take that last breath right before that ball snaps. It’s almost like a second of silence and then just ‘Boom!’ The ball snaps and just you go from there. You’re right. You’re wrong. You react.”
Alignment on the line of scrimmage alone can win or lose a play.
“That inch, 2, 3, 4 inches of difference is the whole world. It’s all about angles.”
Leverage is then gained or lost in a millisecond. In this sense, like Atlanta Falcons vet Calais Campbell, he views defensive line play as a game of Texas hold ‘em. Sieler studies the man in front of him as if they’re at a poker table — Is this stance a true sell? Is it a fake? The more he plays, the less he is fooled. Which means he more often than not wins those critical inches. To the point now where Sieler lives in an actual house. That wasn’t case early in his NFL career. Back when he was toggling on and off the 53-man roster — when Sieler lived in a self-described world of “Are you in the NFL? Are you not?” — he lived in a RV. It’d make nomadic NFL life easy.
The lack of WiFi wasn’t ideal. Sieler needed to stick around the Ravens facility to access the Internet. But he loved living at a campsite, for $900/month, “in the middle of nowhere.” Out in the woods, Sieler could watch deer walk all around him each day. When the Dolphins picked him up, Sieler settled into an RV campground on an intercoastal for $1,200/month. He’s a practical man. Towing his entire life with him always made more sense than shuffling in and out of apartments through the NFL madness. Hannah was always cool with it, too. A basketball player at Alabama, she fully understood the sacrifice Sieler was pouring into this sport — and the fact that he’s so freakin’ competitive.
Sieler admits he cannot shut it off.
The college kid who struggled setting a fantasy lineup is now trying to wreck your fantasy matchup.
Nor can he sit still.
Even after inking that whopper of a contract, he’d much rather install everything with his own bare hands. Be it the speaker system in his car, the fencing around their property or their entire security system. Sieler burrowed into the attic himself to handle all electronic wiring. It’s the engineer in him. If their vehicles need any work done? Hell no, they’re not calling the mechanic. Sieler handles it. (“I’ll do it myself. I know it’s done right.”) A refreshing perspective in a world where we all simply press a button on our phone to get anything we need, right down to food and transportation.
He enjoys heading south to the Florida Keys, to Marathon, and going fishing with a buddy. The loss of cell service, out on the Atlantic, is viewed as a blessing. All conversation is face to face. Nobody’s on their phones. Other times, he’ll throw on some classic rock and work on his 2013 Jeep Wrangler. Doesn’t matter if it’s 95 degrees. Sieler pulls the axles, lifts it, finds something, and it brings him total peace. Of course, he’d try changing a wheel with the Red Bull Racing team at the F1 Miami Grand Prix.
Fresh air, he knows, is good for the soul.
That’s why any spare time Sieler does have is spent building up his foundation, Sieler Safe Haven, which helps get kids outside. He has taken a quadriplegic child out to hunt gator, iguanas and deer. He loves taking kids from Miami who never spend time in the great outdoors to central Florida and the Everglades. Soon to be a father himself, Sieler knows the pitfalls that loom.
Society pushes everyone to become addicted to screens — young.
Technology isn’t all terrible. This conversation, after all, is taking place over Zoom. But as Sieler notes, screens become the ultimate time-suck.
“For kids and adults,” he says. “How many times does someone just started scrolling and you just get lost in it and it’s all of a sudden half-hour goes by? That’s why I love to hopefully spark a passion with kids. To go out in the woods. Especially when you have no service. I love that. Then you have no connection.”
No, Sieler won’t be planting a cell phone anywhere at Hard Rock Stadium. No backflips for him. He’ll stick to assisting Christian Wilkins with his Power Ranger-themed celebration.
And that’s what gives this Miami Dolphins team a perfect balance. Another record seems to fall every time Mike McDaniel’s offense takes the field. Fun, to be sure. But they’ll need such yeoman grunts to exchange body blows with teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. Teams that choose to bludgeon.
Bully ball awaits.
They’ll need Zach Sieler.
“I’m a competitor,” Sieler says. “I want to be the best every single day — and to not stop.”
Go Long is your home for longform journalism in pro football. We’ll forever cover the sport through a longform lens.
Our series on Tua Tagovailoa last season, icymi:
It’s no shock that Zach Sieler and Wyatt Teller hit it off…
Miss our story on Thursday at Go Long? Jaguars OC Press Taylor opens up on how they’re fighting a troubling trend for NFL offenses…
We’ve got the answers for those Buffalo Bills…
Make sure you add the Substack App! Each Sunday, we’ll rev up a Gameday Chat. Meet fellow Go Long readers from around the world.