Zach Zenner has an opportunity to blow up this season. What can fans expect from him?
Now that the “LeGarrette Blount to the Lions” speculation is over, it seems very unlikely that the Lions will add an impact player at the running back position. That means that Zach Zenner is very likely to be the Lions’ number two running back going into the season. Zenner will get a shot to prove himself in the 2017 season, and these are the things that you can expect from him.
Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None Running The Ball:
Zenner hasn’t proven a lot yet in the NFL. In his career he has only had 394 rushing yards, but Zenner’s college production was eye-popping, to say the least. In Zenner’s final three seasons in college he ran for 6078 yards (with more than 2000 yards in each of the three seasons) and 58 touchdowns at 6.1 yards per carry. His average season over his last three years in college was 2026 rushing yards, 19.3 rushing touchdowns. Zenner’s production in college was ridiculous and warrants praise, regardless of the level of competition he was playing against. To average 2000 yards per season as a starter merits at least a shot to be the number two back for the Lions.
Onto Zenner’s NFL career: he had done almost nothing of note for two seasons until week 16 of last year. Against the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, Zenner had 12 carries for 67 yards and 2 touchdowns, most of which came in the first half of the game. The following week against Green Bay, he ran for 69 yards and another touchdown. In the playoff game against Seattle, Zenner was the starter, and although he didn’t have anywhere near as impressive a game, he still had a few nice runs. While none of this is starting level production, all three of these games were still very impressive from Zenner, and they really seemed to come out of nowhere. Prior to those games, Zenner averaged just 16.5 yards per game and played in four games where he had no yards at all.
So what does Zenner offer as a runner? He is a jack of all trades, master of none at running back if I have ever seen one. He does just about anything you would want from a running back, but he doesn’t do anything better than decently. He has decent speed, decent agility, decent vision, decent power, decent everything. The positive is that he has no huge weaknesses, the negative is that he doesn’t do anything very well.
On this run against the Dallas Cowboys, Zenner shows many of those traits as he does a good job of spotting the running lane, shakes off one tackler, then shows his decent speed as he gets to the second level. His power comes into play again at the end of the play, as he pushes a couple defenders forward to gain extra yards.
Here is another run against Dallas where Zenner shows good vision and elusiveness, as he spots the running lane and makes a nice move to get through it. He then displays good power, as a defensive lineman makes contact with him two yards short of the end zone. This barely slows Zenner down though, as he has the strength to plow over him and get into the end zone.
This is a play against the Packers where Zenner shows good vision and quickness as he is able to spot a very narrow running lane in the offensive line, and instantly get through it and up to the second level. He then barrels through a couple of defenders for extra yards at the end.
Here is one last run from the playoff game in Seattle that shows many of those same traits. Zenner does a good job of finding his running lane and accelerating through it, again pushing over defenders at the end and falling forward for extra yards.
Versatility In The Passing Game:
Over Zenner’s last three seasons in college, he caught 77 passes for 779 yards. In his professional football career, Zach Zenner has caught 20 passes for 207 yards. However, much like Zenner’s rushing numbers improved late in the 2016 season, his receiving number also did. Over the last four games (counting the playoff game in Seattle), Zenner caught 16 passes for 172 yards, an average of four receptions for 43 yards per game. In the playoff game against the Seahawks, Zenner led the entire Lions’ offense in receptions, snagging a career-high six passes from Matthew Stafford.
Flaws In Zenner’s Game:
Zach Zenner’s biggest weakness is that has no major strengths. He is just about the most average running back that you can find. He’s not going to break off huge runs due to great speed and agility and he’s not going to have Marshawn Lynch-like runs where he runs over multiple defenders and stays on his feet. He’s never going to be as much of a factor in the passing game as Abdullah or Riddick; he’s not quick enough to run those routes with the same tightness.
Zach Zenner has also had a major injury in his career. In a 2015 game against the Chicago Bears, Zach Zenner suffered cracked ribs and a collapsed lung that knocked him out for the remainder of the season. While this is not an injury that is likely to happen again, any injury of that magnitude is alarming when it happens.
What Zenner will almost surely do for the Detroit Lions is provide a solid, but unspectacular second running back. He is the type of back that the Lions need to help grind down and tire out defenses in the second half. His ceiling isn’t very high, but his floor isn’t very low either. At his best, Zenner looks a lot like Joique Bell. I’m not saying that Zenner will be as successful for the Lions as Bell was, but that is where his ceiling is at. The worst case scenario for Zenner is that his balanced style doesn’t translate to the NFL, and he sees a similar role to what he saw in 2015 and much of 2016, playing as a reserve back and on special teams. This season, I see Zenner splitting carries with Abdullah, and doing moderately well with them. I don’t see him playing quite to Joique Bell’s level, but I see Zenner being good enough that he will have a big impact.
2017 Statistics Prediction: 400 rushing yards, 4 yards per carry, 5 rushing touchdowns, 15 receptions, 150 receiving yards.