Author’s note: This is my first day back at doing what I love and I just want to thank everyone who appreciates my work and especially for the dozens of emails of encouragement I received while I was out the last 40 days on a Army training mission. It’s great to know I have supporters and it pushes me to push myself to do the very best to deliver quality pieces. So, thank you. Back to regular scheduled programming.
On May 23rd of this year, I decided to write a piece that I knew would come with much criticism and ridicule. It was all in the title. It was called “Talented Underdog Zach Zenner: The Detroit Lions next great running back?”. I had recently watched about an hour of highlights and read countless articles about the undrafted free agent the Lions had just signed and came to the conclusion that the kid was special. Special as in special. His underdog status and the fact that football fans love to cheer on guys who run for multiple 2,000-yard seasons in college made the ensuing comment section easier to stomach. However, the “realists” of the gridiron fanscape dominated the majority bashing that followed.
101 days later here we stand and although Zenner has not become the Lions’ next great running back yet, there is even more evidence than before to back my case.
Let’s begin with the obvious factor: talent. I have to ask this question to the scouts – why did Zenner go undrafted again? If you say it’s because he played on the lower level of Division 1 football then I’m going to gauge your eyes out. Zenner is pulling off a lot of the things this NFL preseason that he was playing in the Missouri Valley Conference the last three years. His one-cut running style is made for backs with elite vision and short-area, quick burst acceleration. Not only does he exhibit both of those traits but he’s also shown the knack for churning out tough extra yardage with his powerful legs. However, there is one specific attribute that is really starting to set him aside from his peers.
The singular factor that I’ve seen and studied these past two preseason games from Zenner, that will force Detroit’s coaching staff to consider giving him regular season reps, is his ability as a pass blocker. He has superb understanding of where to position himself to pick up blocks and is sturdy against contact (thanks again to those logs for legs he is blessed with).
The main issue that arises with Zenner nowadays is where will he get his opportunities. This is finally Joique Bell’s year to play feature back and deservingly so. It took only the first preseason game for Ameer Abdullah to endear himself to Lions fans and fantasy football patrons alike. And then you have Theo Riddick, who simply has too much talent to keep off the field – especially on third downs. However, the crowded scene at running back doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue for neither Zenner nor the Lions. How comfortable are you that if the injury bug hits the team and Bell and/or Abdullah (knock on a giant piece of Californian redwood) must take time off that Zenner and Riddick would be propelled into their roles? Zenner as Bell and Riddick as Abdullah? What coaching staff in the NFL has that backup option right now? Speaking of the coaching staff, you have to be excited if you’re Caldwell & Co. that you have such depth at the position and can protect and nurture a Zach Zenner as he grows rather than toss him into hostile NFL defenses from the jump.
Did I mention he went undrafted?
There’s also the final option that this article could end up in archival oblivion if the Lions do the unthinkable and cut Zenner in favor of the fan favorite turned forgotten man that is George Winn. The simple fact of the matter is that Winn is the better special teams player. The value that could hold in the minds of Detroit’s front office is unknown, but the scenario that Winn is seen as the player that could help the Lions win now is a reality that could play out. Zenner would undoubtedly end up on the practice squad and I would bet a month’s worth of my FanDuel budget that another team, with a need at HB, would pluck him away faster than you can comment on what you just read.
I, for one, would hate for that to happen. The Lions should clearly see by now the gem that they hold in the SDSU product and keep him protected from all enemies – foreign and domestic. They should see by now that a guy who should have been drafted anywhere from the bottom of the second round to the bottom of the third of this past NFL Draft, fell directly into their arms for very little cost.
Seeing these things could turn the phrase “same old Lions” into “different new Lions” quicker than the norm. Zach Zenner should be here – in Detroit – for the long run.
Make the right decision, Detroit.
Keep the Doc’.