Dynasty Draft Profile: Zach Zenner
April 7, 2015 | Rich Hribar
Zach Zenner is one of my favorite prospects in this class, so I’ve been looking forward to this write up. When you have a small school running back, you expect him to produce lofty numbers and Zenner doesn’t disappoint in that regard, wrecking the FCS and the Missouri Valley Conference for three consecutive 2,000 yard rushing seasons at South Dakota State. He also proved to be a workhorse of the highest caliber, carrying the football over 300 times in each of those seasons. While he will get dinged for his production in the FCS, Zenner also wasn’t slowed down when awarded the chance to face D1 competition. It’s a small sample, but here’s his game log versus D1 opponents.
You can watch all of his carries in that Nebraska game here to take a further look at him against better competition. He’s not just a player who accumulated production numbers on a lesser level, but he also checks out physically for a back of his size. Average marks for backs 220 pounds and above are 4.56 in the 40-yard dash which he’s right on par with, 35 inch vertical and 118 inch broad jumps in which he obliterates, and 4.30 shuttle and 7.05 three cone times, proving he has the requisite agility for his frame and crosses the overall threshold athletically for a bigger back. He’s often compared to Danny Woodhead which is laughably ludicrous since they aren’t even in the same realm of size, play style or athleticism, but since he was so productive and displayed measured athleticism, we come out with these two as his closest objective physical and final season production comparisons entering the league.
|William Green||Boston College||2002||16||22.0||73||221||4.60||42||121||n/a||n/a||26.5||155.9||1.5||2.3|
|Zach Zenner||South Dakota St.||2015||TBD||23.3||71||223||4.60||41||121||4.14||7.08||24.1||144.2||1.6||2.0|
Both Green and LeShoure were backs selected far above where Zenner is anticipated to go in this draft, and although time has deteriorated the value of the running back position overall, I believe it’s still safe to say that Zenner is likely to be undervalued by the league. This is also the second time that Green has come up as a close comparison for a back, with the first being Jay Ajayi, a back I am very high on. Is it possible that Zenner is actually an arbitrage play on Ajayi?
|Zach Zenner||South Dakota St.||23.3||71||223||4.60||41||121||4.14||7.08||24.1||144.2||1.6||2.0|
|Jay Ajayi||Boise State||21.5||72||221||4.57||39||121||4.10||7.10||24.8||130.2||2.0||3.6|
As usual, this is strictly an objective comparison, because in terms of style, both are very different runners. Whereas Ajayi is more of a free spirit with the football, Zenner is not entirely aesthetically exciting or wildly creative, and can run stiffly. That’s alright though, because he is a one cut, straight ahead downhill runner. He gets what’s available to him, rarely taking on unnecessary risk in creating self-induced negative runs and consistently churns out yards after contact with his size.
Like Ajayi, he’s also a contributor in the passing game. He’s not a Duke Johnson type that can run a smattering of routes and you can flex out in that regard, but he handles the baseline level of receiving the ball at the position with ease and is a dependable asset in the passing game as a receiver.
For being built in the mold of a grinder, Zenner also has the wood chopping home run jaunt in his arsenal that happens after he’s nicking away consistent cuts of yardage. He has long speed to win open field races to go with his size. He had 12 carries of 60 or more yards over the past three seasons, one of which was this 99-yard sprint facing Kansas.
All of this paints a nice portrait for a back that appears to be a steal in both real and fantasy, but as I’m sure you noticed in the comparison table to Ajayi, there is some red on his ledger that centers on his age. Zenner is an older prospect, turning 24 years old in the opening month of the upcoming season. Since 2000, here’s every rookie runner 24 years or older (sorted by draft position) that tallied 100 yards rushing and the number of top-24 PPR scoring seasons they went on to post in their careers.
Just 12 of those 49 backs produced a top 24 scoring season with just nine accomplishing it multiple times. You can kind of hang your hat on the fact the NFL doesn’t seem to care about it since players like Carlos Hyde and Charles Sims were just selected highly a year ago and recently Andre Ellington and Alfred Morris have been strong producers, but it’s still an arrow into the back of Zenner’s big picture outlook. Running back is a far more transitive position from college into the NFL, but for purposes of maxing out his window in the apex age for a running back, he’s going to need to get himself onto a depth chart that has an immediate role for him or is shallow enough in volume and talent for him dispatch those ahead of him.
Even in a running back class regarded as one of the strongest in years, I believe Zenner is a top 5-7 back that is available on talent and measurables and predestination I will rank him as such. Where and when he’s selected will be the telling the story on where I place his final value in rookie drafts, but he’s currently free as the 51st rookie being selected in mocks done by Dynasty League Football. If he holds any price tag in the third round and beyond, that’s an area where I will be taking multiple swings on him cashing out his ceiling and possibly outshining many backs selected ahead of him this summer.
As the above table suggested, Zenner was a long shot to see a team use significant draft capital in acquiring him, if any at all, and he went through the unclaimed by a team in the draft. He quickly signed with Lions post draft and the landing spot at least keeps the lights on for his future. Detroit used the 54th overall selection to take Ameer Abdullah, so his future is guaranteed safety, but Joique Bell will turn 29 this August and is coming off of knee surgeries in each of the past two off seasons and a minor Achilles clean up this past January. Bell was also markedly inefficient as a runner last season, but he does still has a stranglehold on his 2015 role, but injuries and decline have already crept into his forecast going forward. Theo Riddick is also safe as the team’s third running back, but it’s safe to label him the Lions version of Travaris Cadet at this point. That leaves Zenner to beat out George Winn, the third year back who has already been a part of four organizations, to make the roster. That’s a mountain Zenner should topple, and if he does, may be able to carve a role by 2016. Because of his age and needing dominoes to fall in order to first get an opportunity, Zenner remains a fourth round Hail Mary. If I have the roster space in which I can hold him for a year and see how everything plays out, he’s still a player I will target late in drafts where you’re poking holes in the ground just looking to strike oil.