Each preseason, players emerge from the end of the roster to post impressive statistics and create a buzz in the fantasy world. Last year, the likes of Cyrus Gray and Corey Washington shined against opponents’ second- and third-string defenses. Many stars in August find themselves on practice squads or in street clothes when the weather turns cold, but the running back who led the NFL in rushing yards this preseason may be different. Can Zach Zenner stick on the Detroit Lions’ roster and, more importantly for our purposes, the dynasty radar?
Originally from Minnesota, where in high school he starred in football and baseball, Zenner attended South Dakota State (SDSU). As a freshman in 2011, he accumulated 1,354 all-purpose yards (including at least 100 in nine of his 11 games) as he gave a taste of what was to come in his collegiate career.
He elevated his production in his sophomore season, the first of three straight 2,000+ rushing yard campaigns, leading the FCS in with 2,044 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground including a school-record 295-yard performance. He continued setting records as a junior with 2,015 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, scoring at least one touchdown in 13 of 14 games. He capped off his incredible run at SDSU with 2,350 yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns in his senior season, averaging 11.8 yards per reception on 28 catches out of the backfield.
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When all was said and done, Zenner had recorded 7,457 career yards and 69 touchdowns from scrimmage, including 95 receptions for 909 yards, earning a plethora of awards and honors within the conference. He was the first player in Division 1 history with three straight seasons of 2,000 or more rushing yards.
The 5’11, 223-pound running back put on a show at the 2015 NFL Combine as well. He finished in the top ten at his position in most categories, including top-5 finishes in the bench press, vertical jump and broad jump. He also tied with Ameer Abdullah for 12th place with a 4.60-second 40-yard dash. His SPARQ score (based on Pro Day and Combine testing) also ranked in the 81st percentile among active NFL running backs. While his production could never be denied, the Combine results put Zenner on the radar for evaluators who put more stock in metrics as well.
When watching game tape, Zenner’s talent is evident. He is fast for his size (especially when he has space to turn on the afterburners) and displays the toughness and durability to be a workhorse. Though he was not used extensively as a receiver out of the backfield, he has good hands, vision and pass protection skills to play all three downs. He also has a great reputation as a smart player with a strong work ethic.
Despite all of his positive attributes, there are reasons all 32 NFL teams passed on Zenner while 18 running backs and four fullbacks were selected. He is not an elusive runner, with little lateral agility or ability to push through the line when there is not an open running lane. He is a one-cut runner, so scheme fit is a consideration and he will need to demonstrate consistency against more difficult competition.
Draft pundits generally anticipated Zenner would be selected as a mid-to-late third day pick. Instead, he went unselected (likely due to his lack of experience against strong competition) and was a highly sought-after free agent. Many early reports indicated he officially signed with San Diego (prompting some panic from Melvin Gordon owners), but a few days after the draft, he officially inked a deal with Detroit.
With few rookie running backs receiving more preseason hype than fellow Lion Ameer Abdullah, the Zenner hype only simmered in the weeks after the draft; that is, with the exception of many savvy dynasty owners – that all changed when Zenner dominated out of the backfield in the Lions’ preseason games. He finished first in the NFL with 183 preseason rushing yards on 35 carries as well as 60 receiving yards and multiple touchdowns and coupled with contributions on special teams, left the Lions with no choice but to give him a spot on the 53-man roster.
Zenner joins a potentially crowded backfield that includes the electric Abdullah, pass-catcher Theo Riddick, the oft- and currently-injured Joique Bell and rookie fullback Michael Burton. Currently listed fourth on the running back depth chart, and as the backup fullback, Zenner is not projected to receive significant playing time as a rookie. Rather, he should fill the same backup role occupied in 2014 by the player he battled for a roster spot (George Winn). Zenner is more talented than his predecessor, however, and would likely be the primary beneficiary for carries should Bell be unavailable.
Unlike many of the players featured in this article series, Zenner is probably rostered in nearly every dynasty league. Find a roster spot for him if he is somehow available; otherwise keep an eye on his playing time and status in your league. Should Bell, Abdullah and Riddick share carries for the first few weeks of the season, an impatient owner in need of a flex option may cut Zenner loose. Given the unknowns associated with Bell’s health (and effectiveness given his 3.9 yards-per-carry average each of the last two seasons), Abdullah’s on-field play and Riddick’s role, there should be an opportunity for Zenner before the end of the year.