Detroit Lions Zach Zenner is one of the NFL’s rising stars

Written by: Robert Rotty – Staff Writing Intern (@GrandstandRotty)

Zenner? I hardly know her!

Jokes aside, I do know Zach Zenner. Not on a personal level, but well enough to know that he could soon be talked about as one of the NFL’s Top-10 fantasy running backs.

And before you stop reading this article, hear me out. I used to think that Zenner was just another guy that wouldn’t do much at the NFL level. It was a great story about an undrafted rookie from South Dakota State making an NFL roster, but come on? Could he really have an impact? I even remember sitting at a fantasy football draft before the 2015 season and one of my friends decided to take him in the last round. Everyone laughed at him. He continued to defend Zenner in his drunken stupor, and claimed that he’s “actually really good, just you wait”. He might’ve been biased, as Zenner grew up and went to high school only a few towns away from our hometown, or maybe he might’ve been onto something. Since then, I’ve done a completely 180 on Zenner. I think he’s going to find a ton of success in the NFL. And to be fair to my friend that drafted him, it was still a better last round pick than our other buddy who drafted a backup kicker (Alcohol played a pretty large part in this draft).

Zach Zenner was productive in college. At South Dakota State, Zenner started off as a change-of-pace back and special teamer his freshman year. He then started for the Jackrabbits in his sophomore through senior years, amassing over 2,000 rushing yards in each of those years. This is an incredible feat at any level of football. He also added 95 catches across his four-year career for 909 yards. Although those receiving stats aren’t great, it shows that he wasn’t completely incapable of contributing in the passing game. Despite this, Zenner went undrafted. If we take a closer look at his draft profile, however, the fact that he went undrafted is absurd.

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 12.24.30 PM.png

This graphic, via, shows what a phenomenal athlete Zach Zenner is. Notice his SPARQ-x score. SPARQ-x is “An approximation of Nike’s SPARQ Rating […] a standardized test for athleticism”. It measures athletes on speed, power, agility, reaction, and quickness. The only difference is this metric uses bench press instead of a power ball throw to make sure that these metrics match NFL combine events. His score of 134.5 is in the 95th percentile. David Johnson has a SPARQ-x score of 134.9, for comparison purposes.

His College Dominator score is also in the 92nd Percentile. College dominator measures total percentage of offensive production for that team that comes from a player. For runningbacks, it takes into account both the rushing and receiving production. His score was close to 44%, which is about one percentage point behind what Le’Veon Bell’s score was.

He also had a 6.4 yards per carry, which was just above Jamaal Charles’ college output. Stop and think about this. Obviously these guys are all tremendous athletes and NFL running backs, and Zach Zenner is right up there with them in terms of these metrics. And again, he went undrafted. The most intriguing part about his draft profile may be his player comparison though. It’s longtime Detroit Lions running back, Joique Bell. Zach Zenner currently plays for the Detroit lions.


Here is Joique Bell’s draft profile:

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 12.26.38 PM.png

It makes sense why Joique Bell is Zach Zenner’s best player comparison. Bell played Division II football at Wayne State. As noted by his College Dominator Score, he literally did everything for the school. His yards per carry are also exactly the same as Zenner’s. The differences between the two players lie in their workout metrics and SPARQ-x scores. Bell had a higher agility score, but fared worse in every other category. Zach Zenner is basically a more athletic Joique Bell. I mean the list of similarities is nearly endless. They have similar, heights, weights, body mass indexes, and even college statistics. At Wayne State, Bell put up two seasons of over 2000 rushing yards, and amassed 918 receiving yards on 79 catches over his four years. It’s actually kind of starting to scare me how fitting this player comp is for Zach Zenner, and it explains why the Detroit Lions are giving Zach Zenner a chance to be their bell cow back with Theo Riddick out and Dwayne Washington proving that he isn’t quite ready to start.

The last three weeks, Zach Zenner has been productive for the Detroit Lions. He has 35 carries for 148 yards and 10 catches for 128 yards on 13 targets, while adding in three rushing touchdowns. Extrapolated to entire season this would be around 790 rushing yards and 680 receiving yards, but I think Zenner realistically could be better than this if given the opportunity. My reasoning comes from what Joique Bell was able to do before Theo Riddick arrived in Detroit.

In 2013, Joique Bell rushed the ball 166 times for 650 yards, while adding 53 catches for 547 yards on 69 targets. In 2014, Bell rushed 223 times for 860 yards and had 34 catches for 322 yards on 53 targets. Theo Riddick started to get involved more in 2014 and also caught 34 balls, providing a reason for the drop of receiving production from Bell. But the point here is that Joique Bell was quite productive in his 2 best seasons, and even finished as running back 14 overall in fantasy in 2014. If given a full workload as Bell was in 2014, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Zenner put up a top-10 fantasy running back season, given the fact that he is a far superior athlete. The problem is Theo Riddick has proven to be one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league over the last few seasons. With Riddick under contract with the Lions through the 2019 season, it would take an injury or trade for Zenner to get the opportunity. And don’t forget that the Lions have Ameer Abdullah as well. Zenner is only under contract through the 2017 season, however, he is a restricted free agent. This means Detroit could match any offer from another NFL team and keep him. If Zenner does go to another team where he becomes the featured back though, he has a very good chance at being a very productive back.

Still don’t believe me?

Michael Bennet, who plays on the defensive line for the Seattle Seahawks, said that Zach Zenner is the, “Best white running back in the NFL”. Now this could have been an insult, given that there is a lack of white running backs in the NFL, but this isn’t how Bennet intended for it to sound. He went on to praise Zenner. Zenner even acknowledged the situation and responded to Bennett’s words:

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and it sounded like he said some pretty nice stuff. So I’m appreciative of that.”

Zach Zenner had no hard feelings towards Bennett, and even gave appreciation back to Michael Bennett for being a really good player. That’s some classic Minnesota nice coming from Zenner, who was raised in Eagan, MN before going to play at South Dakota State University. The two players even get a chance to go at it this Saturday, as the Detroit Lions travel to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in the Wild Card round. If you’re playing any DFS this weekend, Zenner comes at a very reasonable price across the major sites, and should see the lion’s share (pun intended) of the running back touches for Detroit. It’s a tough matchup, but I expect him to show everyone how talented of a player he really is.

It’s hard not to cheer for Zach Zenner. Race aside, he’s a gritty football player that plays the game right way. He’s currently showing that he can handle a full workload and be productive while doing so. I wish the best for him, and really do hope he gets the chance to get a full workload as he enters his prime in the next few years. With his athletic ability, don’t be surprised if he ends up being a Top-10 fantasy running-back and a very productive player someday. Although we may have to wait until 2018 for this to come into fruition.



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