Last week, Danny Woodhead tweeted out a post-workout picture of him and Detroit Lions running back, Zach Zenner. Woodhead is preparing for his 11th season in the NFL, but his first with the Baltimore Ravens. While Zenner is entering his third season with Detroit, hoping to see an increased role in their pass-heavy offense.
There’s a troubling tendency among NFL writers to, unconsciously or otherwise, compare athletes of similar races. Black quarterbacks tend to get lumped together, as do white receivers and white running backs. Three years back, Deadspin ran with an interesting article about NFL scouts’ tendency to use very specific adjectives when describing either black or white athletes. Call it lazy or ignorant, but people tend to fall back on easy heuristics when scouting players of the same race.
Obviously Danny Woodhead and Zach Zenner share the somewhat rare distinction of being white running backs, but their football careers have been remarkably similar thus far. I’m not saying their playing style is similar—it most certainly is not—but for those counting out Zenner’s potential to be a long-term legitimate contributor in the NFL, you may want to look deeper at the career of Woodhead.
Woodhead had an outstanding college career at the DII university, Chadron State. As a four-year starter, he racked up 7,962 rushing yards total, averaging 6.9 yards per carry and finishing with a total of 101 rushing touchdowns. By the time he left for the NFL, Woodhead was the all-time rushing leader in NCAA history.
Zenner’s football career had a similar start. He attended South Dakota State, the only DI school to offer him a scholarship. His production at the Missouri Valley Conference school was bananas. Zenner rushed for over 2,000 yards in three straight seasons (the first DI player to do that), finishing with a total of 6,548 yards. He even managed to be extremely productive against real college competition, running for 202 yards against Nebraska in 2013 and 183 yards against Kansas in 2012.
Despite outstanding college careers, both Zenner and Woodhead struggled to get noticed by the NFL. Woodhead didn’t even earn an invite to the NFL Combine, so he had to impress via Nebraska’s Pro Day. And impress he did:
But the big show came from 5-foot-7, 197-pound Danny Woodhead, pride of Chadron State. His 40 time registered between 4.33 and 4.38 seconds, depending on whose clock you were looking at. He had a 38 1/2-inch vertical. He also put up 225 pounds 20 times, which wasn't even as good as he wanted.
Zenner was lucky enough to earn a combine visit, and although he didn’t shine quite as brightly as Woodhead, he certainly graded out well athletically:
Despite good performances, both Woodhead and Zenner went undrafted. They were scooped up immediately by the Jets and Lions respectively, but would have to work to make their team’s final roster. Unfortunately for Woodhead, he was injured during training camp and spent the year on injured reserve. Zenner managed to make Detroit’s final cut, but he, too, suffered a season ending injury early in his rookie year. He managed just six games before suffering a brutal injury that resulted in a collapsed lung and broken ribs.
The second year in the NFL for both players was modest. Woodhead managed to make the Jets, but would only end up carrying the ball 15 times the entire season. Zenner’s sophomore season, on the other hand, was a bit more promising. He managed 334 rushing yards on 88 carries (3.8 YPC) and proved he was able to carry the bulk of the load in his four starts in 2017. In the Lions’ final three games, Zenner proved capable as the lead back against the Cowboys (92 total yards), Packers (110) and Seahawks (88).
But it was Woodhead’s third year where he broke out. A change of scenery to New England proved to be just the jump-start that Woodhead’s career needed. After Kevin Faulk was lost to injury, Woodhead became the No. 2 back behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He would finish the season with 547 rushing yards (5.6 YPC) and five touchdowns. From there, Woodhead’s career exploded. Though his rushing statistics remained modest, he became a huge threat as a receiver. In his three full seasons that weren’t shortened to injury (2012, 2013 and 2015) he placed among the top six running backs in terms of receiving yards.
And that’s where the comparison departs from Zenner. While Woodhead excelled as a receiving threat, Zenner will likely have to find a niche as a rusher. The Lions running back is entering his third season and while he doesn’t have the benefit of a change of scenery, he does have a pretty good opportunity in 2017. The Lions didn’t go out and pick up a legitimate rushing option behind Ameer Abdullah—depending on your thoughts on Matt Asiata. This leaves a window of opportunity for Zenner to become Detroit’s second primary rusher and potential lead back should Abdullah suffer another injury.
That isn’t to diminish Zenner’s skill as a receiver. He’s not nearly as quick and shifty as Woodhead, but he did pull in 18 catches for 196 yards last year. However, with both Abdullah and Theo Riddick on the roster, Zenner isn’t likely to receive a lot of looks as a receiver in 2017.
Still, it’s interesting to see the trajectory of both players’ careers when lined up next to each other. Many, myself included, counted Zenner out from the start. But with Woodhead laying the foundation for forgotten, small school backs, perhaps Zenner can use him as guidance to forge out a similar career.