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Detroit Lions film breakdown: Does Zach Zenner have a place in the Lions future?

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The running back has made an unlikely resurgence late in the season, but should the fairy tale continue next year?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Zenner is one of the more inspirational stories in the NFL. The former South Dakota State Jackrabbit was not selected in the 2015 NFL draft and was an afterthought as he joined the Detroit Lions on a UDFA deal. He then lit up the preseason, leading the NFL in rushing yards over those four games and earned a spot on the team’s 2015 roster.

His rookie year was fairly quiet, but he became one of the offense’s more important players down the stretch in 2016. With Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick struggling with injuries at the time, it was Zenner who stepped up late in the season. He even started the teams playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. Zenner finished 2016 with over 500 all-purpose yards.

Zenner’s role was marginalized in 2017 when the rest of the running back corps returned. The additions of Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount in the 2018 offseason led to him missing out on the 53-man roster and it looked like his NFL career was all but over.

The running back was not finished just yet, though. First, he went and got ripped.

Then, in early November, Detroit cut Abdullah and brought Zenner back on board. He got limited use at first, but he slowly worked his way into the team’s lineup after Johnson suffered an injury. Against the Arizona Cardinals, he single handedly carried the team downfield for their lone offensive touchdown of the day.

The underdog once again showed many why he deserves a chance. But now four years into his NFL career, the running back has never truly been a mainstay anywhere in the league. No team outside of Detroit has ever bothered to sign him and he has trouble even staying on the Lions roster. He will be a free agent this offseason and his NFL career will once again be in limbo.

While he has been cut many times the past few years, it is also remarkable how often he ends up back at Allen Park. The main reason Detroit just can not stay away from him is his grit as a runner and ability to always keep his feet churning. Zenner never gives up on runs and manages to always keep his momentum going forward.

This play against the Cardinals is a good example:

Zenner is not quick enough to get through the hole on this play, but he still creates a decent gain. A Cardinals corner comes in off of the edge in run defense and latches on to him in the backfield. He drags the defender upfield and even picks up two more passengers as he trucks through the defense. The running back picks up seven yards on a play that may have been stopped in the backfield.

While this play is an impressive display of what Zenner does bring to a team, it also shows his greatest fault. He just does not have the explosion or speed to hit holes when they open up. This run against the Bills went for eleven yards, but it should have gone for a lot more.

The Lions run blocking was amazing on this play. They opened up a gaping hole in the Bills defense. It would be impossible for Zenner not to pull a decent gain out of this play. The running back spots the hole and makes a cut to get through it. His cut is stiff, though, and he takes forever to hit the hole. Once he is across the line of scrimmage he takes off downfield, but his slow speed allows the Bills to quickly chase him down.

Johnson would take this carry for a huge gain—maybe even all the way to the end zone. Abdullah would probably even take this run for much longer then eleven yards. With Zenner, there is always a ceiling to how successful a run can be due to his limitations as an athlete.

What Zenner does lack in speed and quickness he does make up elsewhere, however. The running back has great vision and never really misses holes. He is also great at spotting defenders as they close in on him in the backfield and has the mental processing speed need to adjust accordingly. As stiff as he is, if Zenner can spot a defender closing in on him well in advance. Then he can usually create something out of nothing, like he did on this play against the Minnesota Vikings:

Zenner is under pressure the moment he takes the hand-off on this play. The run blocking failed him and a Vikings defender was in perfect position to earn a tackle for loss. The running back saw him coming, though, and quickly adjusted in order to make him miss and turn up field for a decent gain.

He also has great balance and footwork. Much of the reason why Zenner is able to push piles and always fall forward is because of his ability control his body weight, like he did here against the Cardinals:

Zenner takes the hand-off on this play and has to beat a defender to the hole. He is not fast enough to get there first, but he has the strength and balance to shake off the first man. Defenders pick him up at the second level, but he is able to keep his momentum moving and eventually fall forward for a decent gain.

The issue is that his balance and vision do not matter if his body can not always react fast enough to what his eyes see. There are a lot of plays where Zenner’s upper body and lower body seem to be competing and doing two different things. He knows where he should be going, but his feet do not move fast enough to get him into the right direction. This also leads to him running with high pad level, leaving him more injury prone over time.

Zenner gets the ball on an outside toss on this play. The Vikings do a good job setting the edge, but a cutback lane does open up back inside for the running back. He clearly spots the hole, as his head turns that direction and even his upper body turns the right way. Zenner’s feet can not cut into the right direction in time, though, and he is tripped up for a loss in the backfield.

While Zenner can make a minimal gain out of plays that should net the team nothing, he also can not create huge gains on plays where space opens up for him to do so. His actual use is limited as well. The running back is a poor blocker and has little use as a receiver. He is one-dimensional and all he really brings to a team is his short-yardage running ability.

Does Zenner have a future in Detroit?

When watching Zenner it becomes apparent why he can not stick on the Lions roster. While he is an average player that can bring a few things to team, it’s hard to see him as more than just a depth piece. He does not have the speed or explosion to take advantage of good run blocking. While he can earn a few yards on dead plays, it is hard to see how that makes up for his failures elsewhere.

He could stick around as a goal line back, but his high pad level and bad acceleration as a runner will lead to him getting stuffed more often then not.

Detroit’s running back room will probably be overhauled next season. Johnson will be back from injury, but everything beyond him is a mystery. Blount will probably retire. Riddick still has a lot of use, but he is a potential cap casualty.

The Lions will need a third down back—if they cut Riddick—and a short-yardage guy. While Zenner has potential to fill the short-yardage role, he was part of the group who failed Detroit in short-yardage situations in the past. In a way, Zenner is kind of the reason Blount was brought to the Lions in the first place.

It is hard to see Zenner as anything more then a game day inactive depth piece going forward. As disappointing as that sounds considering his underdog story, sometimes there is a reason why a player can not stick on an NFL roster.