The first three rounds of the 2015 NFL draft have come and gone and the New York Jets have yet to address the running back position. The Jets have several backs who can run the ball with varying degrees of effectiveness, but really don't have a pass catching back on the roster. In a Chan Gailey offense a pass catching back would seem to be fairly important. Here's a deep sleeper at the position that may be of interest in the 5th round or later.
His name is Zach Zenner. He hails from South Dakota State. And he is a Giant Slayer. I know, I know, small school nobody, difficult to get excited about, right? Maybe these facts will change your mind.
Zenner is 6' 0", 220+ pounds. He ran a 4.6 40 at the combine, and vertical jumped an eye-popping 41". The man has some athletic ability. Don't care about the combine you say? Not interested in workout warriors? Only interested in productive players? Well, try this on for size. The obscure Mr. Zenner produced to the tune of 2000 yards in 2014. Nice, right, even for an FCS player? Well, if you like that, there's more. He rushed for 2000 yards in 2014. And he rushed for 2000 yards in 2013. Awesome, right? Two straight 2000 yard rushing seasons ain't chopped liver, even at the FCS level. But wait, there's more! You like the two straight 2000 yard seasons, but still aren't sure? If only he had done a little bit more? Well how about this. Zach also rushed for 2000 yards in 2012. That's right, not one, not two, but three straight 2000 yard seasons! How's that for production? Still not enough? How about 66 touchdowns in his college career? How does that sound? You want production, Zach gives you production.
Still not convinced, right? I mean, I thought we needed a receiving back, right? You asked for it, you got it. Mr. Zenner caught 95 passes for 909 yards and eight touchdowns in his career. Zach can catch passes.
OK, OK, that all sounds great, but what about the competition? I mean he probably rolled up all those stats against extremely low level FCS competition, right? I'm so glad you asked. How do you like this competition? In 2012 Zach went up against Kansas. The result: 23 carries, 183 yards and a touchdown. In 2013 it was Nebraska's turn to get destroyed. How does 21 carries, 202 yards and two touchdowns grab ya? Nebraska never knew what hit 'em. Not impressed with those opponents? How about arguably the best division in college football, the SEC? In 2014 Zenner faced Missouri, and gashed them for 17 carries, 103 yards and two touchdowns. How's that for production against the big boys? You wanna throw Goliaths at him? Zach gladly plays the role of David, and we all know who won that battle.
So here's the scouting report on Zenner. The positives: He is a smooth and natural pass catcher with excellent hands. He makes nice adjustments on inaccurate passes. He has good vision and excels as a one cut and go type runner. Once he hits top speed guys don't catch him from behind. He has a great motor and always keeps his legs churning.He runs with power reasonably well and breaks tackles reasonably well, although he is no Chris Ivory in that regard. He is a willing and reasonably effective pass blocker and picks up pass rushers pretty effectively. The negatives: he isn't the most elusive of runners and will probably struggle a bit outside a one cut and go type system. He doesn't have a ton of wiggle, and is not the most creative of runners. He runs a bit high and needs to work on getting behind his pads.
Bottom line: Zach Zenner is probably not a stud number one type back in the NFL. But he has had insane production in college and has absolutely decimated higher level competition when he's had the chance to play against good division one programs. He is very good as a pass catcher, and has the ability to split the safeties and accelerate for long gains. As a late round draft pick or undrafted free agent, Zenner makes a ton of sense. He isn't a sexy name, he isn't well known, and he isn't likely to be a top ten back in the NFL. But he is a Giant Slayer, and for a late round flyer on a pass catching back, he is more than worth some consideration by the Jets.
Here's some tape, unfortunately in horrible conditions against Montana State. The conditions make it a bit difficult to assess what Zenner's capable of on a clean field, but it's worth noting in this FCS playoff game Zenner came away with a mere 253 yards and four touchdowns.
Editor's Note: Zenner has been accepted into medical school. He clearly has options and may not be willing to slog away on a practice squad as he tries to work his way up an NFL roster. Something to consider.