Will Zach Zenner Be a Fantasy Football Factor in 2016?

Zenner is the most likely heir to the Lions' short-yardage running back role. Why is he going undrafted?

While many of you dear readers may know Kermit the Frog as the star of the “But that’s none of my business” meme -- a.k.a. #TeaLizard -- he first rose to prominence as the star of the TV show Sam and Friends and later The Muppet Show. He is a cheerful eye-of-the-storm type of character, the nonchalant star of the wacky Muppet crew.

But his best moment ever was when he sang his now-hit song, Bein’ Green, a song for those who feel like they don’t matter and don’t belong. The lyrics went: “It's not easy being green/ It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.” But he concludes with a hopeful message: “I am green and it'll do fine, it's beautiful!/ And I think it's what I want to be.”

Hopefully Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner can take comfort the same way that our froggy friend does.

With second-round sophomore Ameer Abdullah atop the depth chart and Theo Riddick soaking up all of the backfield receiving targets, it seems like there won’t be a role for our big-bodied buddy Zenner. He’s not as fast as Abdullah or as good a receiver as Riddick. But is he good enough to earn a role in the Lions’ offense this year?

Is Zenner a 2016 fantasy friend we want to make?

With Good Friends, You Can’t Lose

I wrote two weeks ago about how Riddick should retain almost all of his value from last year as the Lions’ primary passing-down back, and our own Jim Sannes proved in May that Abdullah was undervalued as the lead back for the team.

So why should we care about Zenner too?

I mostly care because Joique Bell is no longer there. There is a popular narrative going around that seems to confirm that Abdullah will be a locked-and-loaded bell cow. It says that the speedy Abdullah got more touches in the second half of the season under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter than he did in the first half with Joe Lombardi. This is 100 percent true, but it is worth noting that this narrative comes with a caveat: so did the early-down pounder Bell.

The table below shows the first- and second-half splits (before and after their Week 9 bye) of rushing attempts per game and targets per game for the Lions’ backfield last season.

Player 1H Rush/G 2H Rush/G 1H Targ/G 2H Targ/G
Ameer Abdullah 7.88 10.00 2.88 1.88
Joique Bell 6.00 7.50 1.60 2.38
Theo Riddick 2.12 3.25 6.62 5.75

We can see clearly that every committee running back in Detroit saw an uptick in rushing attempts after the Week 9 bye last year, and Bell’s increase of 25 percent more ground work is nearly identical to the rate increase Abdullah saw. Cooter just runs a more ground-friendly offense than his predecessor, and there should overall be more rushing attempts to go around in 2016. What’s doubly interesting is that both Abdullah and Riddick’s per-game target rate went down in the second half, while Bell’s increased.

If you’re imagining all of those opportunities going to Abdullah and licking your chops, you may just want to hold your horses: the Lions afforded at least five touches to each of three running backs in 12 of their 16 games last season, including seven of their eight games after the bye. It’s not as if the Lions just rode the hot hand each week; Cooter integrated the entire backfield into the offense and actually preferred using the skill sets of three different running backs.

The big, short-yardage back for Detroit isn’t just an afterthought; it’s a versatile role that plays a key function in this offense. Unless Abdullah and Riddick get severe upticks in workload, there could be around 90 carries and 20 to 30 running back targets floating around for someone to seize.

That someone could be Zenner.

If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Difficult

The fact remains that no player is a perfect comparison for another in the National Football League. Unless you’re the New England Patriots, nobody is a perfect plug-and-play substitute for a previously existing role in an offense.

Still, Zenner is about as perfect a comparison to Bell you’re ever going to see.

Let’s start with the background: Bell is a Midwestern kid from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who went to small-school Wayne State, and dominated his senior collegiate season with more than 2,000 yards rushing and more than 25 touchdowns. He entered the draft at age 24 and went undrafted before being signed by an NFL team.

Zenner is a Midwestern kid from Eagan, Minnesota, who went to small-school South Dakota State, and dominated his senior collegiate season with more than 2,000 yards rushing and more than 25 touchdowns. He entered the draft at age 24 and went undrafted before being signed by an NFL team.

The comparisons don’t stop there. The table below shows Bell’s and Zenner’s NFL Combine performances. How similar are these two, really?

Player Ht/Wt 40 10 Vert Broad Shuttle 3-Cone
Joique Bell 5’11”/220 4.71 1.62 36.5” 120” 4.17 6.84
Zach Zenner 5’11”/223 4.60 1.64 41.0” 121” 4.14 7.08

Zenner is nearly a carbon copy of Bell. The only athletic measure where the two diverge at all is the 3-cone drill, an agility test where Zenner performed 0.24 seconds slower; even there, Zenner put up a 6.88 showing in the same drill at his pro day. He’s actually even more explosive than his predecessor, though, due to a better 40-yard dash and vertical jump at a slightly heavier weight.

If Bell could put up a 4.0 career yards per carry mark and 3.92 percent touchdown rate with this kind of athletic profile and a decimated offensive line, even the short-yardage component of his former role makes Zenner fantasy-worthy in 2016.

Last season alone, the Lions ran 59 plays in goal-to-go situations. Of those 59, 10 were rushes by Joique Bell, and he scored four vulture touchdowns on those plays. Zenner can easily approximate that role at a fraction of the price for fantasy owners. A revamped Detroit interior offensive line (as Jim detailed in his piece on Abdullah) also benefits the big-back role more, since Bell ran 26.44 percent of his attempts up the middle last year; Abdullah took just 15.71 percent of his carries between the tackles.

Before You Leap

Remember, this is not advocacy for you to select Zenner highly in your leagues. This is merely putting you on notice that a potential low-volume scoring fiend is available in your leagues. Bell was going as the 75th player off the board in single-season drafts last year (per Fantasy Football Calculator), despite the presence of Abdullah and his second-round NFL Draft pedigree.

This year, Zenner is going outside the top-200 in nearly every format.

Our algorithms don’t offer much encouragement -- we project Zenner for just 21 carries for 85 rushing yards, and 8 receptions for 52 receiving yards -- but that perception means you can get Zenner's upside for pennies on the dollar.

It's not easy being green -- or third on the depth chart -- but Zenner won’t blend in long in this backfield, and he’s worth a late-round flier in your draft before he becomes a major fantasy factor.