The Detroit Lions released Zach Zenner on Tuesday, sending many adoring fans into distress. Zenner was a hard worker, had a unique story and was an easy guy to root for. And while he was never the great player that some made him out to be, he had value to this team for the past four years, both as a reserve running back and a special teamer.
So why would the Lions move on from someone who was both a great example and solid contributor? Let’s look into the two most likely explanations.
1. He was simply beat out by Mark Thompson
During the preseason, no Lions player had more rushing yards than Thompson: 80 yards on 17 carries for an solid 4.7 yards per carry. Though Zenner did rush for 5.1 YPC himself (51 on 10 carries), Thompson often did it before Zenner even came in the game, leading some to believe he was ahead of him on the depth chart.
Thompson is younger (24 vs. 27), cheaper, and more promising than Zenner.
However, there is one problem with this theory: special teams. We’ve heard head coach Matt Patricia talk so much about the value of special teams, and that is especially true for reserve players.
When it comes to comparing the two, there is no comparison. Zenner played a total of 31 special teams snaps this preseason, while Thompson has played just 12—and only two since the preseason opener. If the Lions are keeping Thompson, they will undoubtedly be sacrificing some special teams talent.
2. The Lions found a special teamer more likely to be active on game days
The one problem with keeping Zach Zenner for his special teams value was that he may not even make the 46-man game-day roster. The Lions seem to really like Ty Johnson, which means Detroit would likely already have at least four active backs, including a fullback: Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson and Nick Bawden. Keeping a fifth active is not very common in the NFL and not a great use of the team’s resources.
So to make up for Zenner’s spot on the roster, you’d have to imagine they found someone else with special teams value who has a better chance at being active on game day. Patricia may have given us a hint during one of his press conferences this week as to who that may be.
When asked what sort of positives he saw out of the receivers last week against the Bills, here was his answer:
“We really evaluate the coverage part of the special teams. Some of those guys that can work into some of those different – we call them gunner positions, right out on the edge, or even the kickoff coverage guys that are setting the edge of some of those return games that we have to see. Certainly, with Buffalo, with the dangerous returners that they had, that was critical for us to get an evaluation of those guys in those units. We’ll just keep mixing them into those groups and see how it comes out in the end. The special teams is such a big part of it, and a lot of it is with receivers, wide receivers in particular – you do want to see their coverage ability and their tackling ability because that’s something that’s not really maybe natural that you’ll see every single play.”
Here are the notable special team snap counts from that game:
- Jonathan Duhart: 13 special teams snaps
- Chris Lacy: 8 special teams snaps
- Travis Fulgham: 6 special teams snaps
- Tom Kennedy: 4 special teams snaps
Obviously, the Lions have a big opening for wide receivers on their game-day roster, as well. At the moment, there is no clear No. 4 receiver, and there’s a good chance the Lions keep a fifth active on game day, as well.
A guy like Chris Lacy, who was in on the opening kickoff for both coverage and return, seems like he’s a lock at this point. Meanwhile, guys like Travis Fulgham (15 total special teams snaps this preseason), Jonathan Duhart (35), or Andy Jones (18) could be the team’s fifth and/or sixth receiver that could play on game days.
If not an extra receiver, it could also mean an extra tight end. I’m sure the Lions wouldn’t mind carrying a fourth tight end on game day, and a guy like Isaac Nauta, who has played 29 special teams snaps himself, could fit the bill.