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Very Deep Sleepers: Zach Zenner (Lions)

Jul 12, 2016


The Detroit Lions may go with Zenner at starting running back

R.C. Fischer discusses deep sleeper candidate Zach Zenner of the Lions.

This piece is part of our article program that features quality content from experts exclusively at FantasyPros. For more insight from R.C. head to Fantasy Football Metrics.

Why is it that no one assumes Zach Zenner will be the opening day starter and most fantasy-relevant running back on the Detroit Lions this season?

You likely believe that opening sentence is silly…just meant to bait you.

Spoiler alert: in about five minutes, you’re going to be agreeing with me about Zenner.

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In order to have you join me, I have to use a couple of beloved young running backs as props – guys who have a similar size as Zenner, and were from the same 2015 draft class – Matt Jones, Jay Ajayi, and T.J. Yeldon.

Let’s set the scene (from their NFL Combine performances):

  • 6′0″/221, 4.57 40-time, 7.10 three-cone, 39.0″ vertical, 19 bench reps = Jay Ajayi
  • 6′2″/231, 4.61 40-time,   n/a three-cone, 31.5″ vertical, 20 bench reps = Matt Jones
  • 6′1″/226, 4.61 40-time, 7.19 three-cone, 36.0″ vertical, 22 bench reps = T.J. Yeldon
  • 5′11″/223 4.60 40-time, 7.08 three-cone, 41.0″ vertical, 25 bench reps = Zach Zenner

As you can see, physically/athletically, Zenner is at absolute worst equal to Matt Jones, Jay Ajayi, and T.J. Yeldon. What I would argue is that Zenner is a little more athletic than any of them (big time vertical, high-end bench press). You likely did not believe Zenner was anywhere near their class of athlete. You see the other guys as ‘magical’ game-breaking talent…and Zenner as an oddball, limited, throwback runner that several websites still list as an ‘FB’ for position.

We could fight about which one of these guys is more athletic ‘on paper’, but what you want to know is why you should consider Zenner right up there with Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon for fantasy football purposes. I know, most football analysts don’t consider these guys anywhere near equal…so therefore you probably don’t. There’s another comparison to consider between these four running backs, and this time Zenner is the bad outlier – it’s their current ADP/draft ranks by the FantasyPros expert consensus:

Why is it that Zenner is considered a nothing, but Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon are filled with such promise in everyone’s minds? Let’s dig into that. Before we do, however, I want you to consider one critical factor so you’ll hang with me through this article: Ameer Abdullah is absolutely nothing to be afraid of for Zenner. I’ll get into that more in a second as well.

Why do people discount Zenner for fantasy football as if he doesn’t exist? There are different rationales for it, to be sure, but most of it rests upon the fact that Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon have a ‘draft status’, and Zenner doesn’t (undrafted in 2015). Zenner did not get the blessing of NFL scouts/NFL teams; therefore he’s looked at like a cute, small-school side story. At the same time, there’s no questioning of the abilities of Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon. They are the ‘anointed ones’…anointed by the scouts and analysts. They went to Division I schools, played for ranked teams. Football scouts and analysts are never wrong.

All Zenner did at FCS South Dakota State is run for back-to-back-to-back 2,000+ yard rushing seasons from his sophomore to senior campaigns. He scored 51 TDs over his final two seasons. He faced D1 teams three times in his career, and dropped 100+ yards on each of them. Facing Kansas (2012), Nebraska (2013), and Missouri (2014), Zenner averaged 162.7 yards rushing (8.0 ypc), 192.4 total yards (rush + rec.) and 4.0 catches per game. He also scored five touchdowns in the three games. He ran for 202 yards in his game against Nebraska. He had a 99-yard TD run versus Kansas. Zach Zenner is a big body, highly athletic, instinctual power runner…and he has pretty decent hands in the passing game. He’s a three-down, legit NFL athlete, power-runner prospect…and no one sees him as such, today.

Another problem with discounting Zenner among the Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon group, and throwing in with the football intelligentsia, is pretty simple – Jones, Ajayi, and Yeldon were all awful last year. Major letdowns to their NFL teams, and fantasy GMs.

I don’t have time to get into all the details on this, and you can go to Fantasy Football to read more detail, but in short: Matt Jones was an underwhelming, fumbling mess in 2015 – Chris Thompson and Pierre Thomas were more important down the stretch for Washington. Jay Ajayi was a complete belly flop in his trial run late last season – 2.6 yards per carry in his final seven games. T.J. Yeldon was so disappointing in 2015 that the Jaguars were using Denard Robinson as a goal line back (you know, the guy nicknamed ‘Shoestring’), and then the team went out and signed Chris Ivory in free agency this year.

At the same time, in 2015, Zenner went from undrafted free agent who was not assured of even making the team, to leading the NFL in rushing in the preseason, to making the 53-man roster, to quickly establishing himself as the best runner of the ball on the team. He was starting by Week 5. He took a bad hit in Week 6, cracking ribs and suffering a collapsed lung – he would miss the rest of the 2015 season. Just as Zenner was taking over, the unfortunate injury derailed his ascension. He’s back to 100% for the Lions, ready for training camp in 2016 – rejoining a Lions team that let Joique Bell walk, did not sign a free agent running back, and did not draft a high-profile back to join the roster.

Folks, Zach Zenner is the best all-around running back on the Detroit Lions, and it’s not even close. Ameer Abdullah is not a feature running back despite what the Lions hope. Abdullah was also a highly touted, ‘draft status’, ‘anointed’ 2015 rookie flop last year…as much of a flop as Jones-Ajayi-Yeldon. Abdullah is simply not cut out to run effectively between the tackles, and/or to carry a heavy workload in the NFL. Abdullah is a change-of-pace back for limited touches. The team would like use him as a pass-game weapon, but the problem is he’s not a natural receiver and struggles with drops. When he does get the ball, there is an extra level of fear because Abdullah is a fumble machine – 23 fumbles in college, 16 of them lost. His NFL debut season…5 fumbles, 2 lost. Abdullah is not a running back who can take a beating. Zach Zenner is more built for the bigger workload/NFL beating. *Theo Riddick will once again work his RB-WR hybrid role in the pass-game regardless of who takes all the carries. And don’t waste time worrying about Stevan Ridley in the mix, come on — it’s not 2012, and this isn’t the Patriots…

The reason the Lions did not chase another running back via free agency or draft in 2016, I believe, is because they know they have something in Zenner. They want things to work with Abdullah, because it’s going to be embarrassing when it doesn’t – but the Lions’ staff, already on thin ice, I assume wants to keep its jobs…so they can either let Abdullah put them at risk of a turnover each touch, or just put them to sleep on each touch – or they can put the load on the one guy on the Lions’ roster built to handle it, the one guy who proved his ability last preseason/in-season to handle it.

Zach Zenner is going to play a major role on this team in 2016, if not becomes the shock running back in all of fantasy football 2016. At his current ADP price, he’s a total steal.

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