Detroit Lions: Why Zach Zenner should be the starting running back

Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions fullback Zach Zenner (34) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions fullback Zach Zenner (34) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

The NFL heavily undervalues running backs. And Zach Zenner is one of those backs being undervalued by his own team, the Detroit Lions.

The NFL heavily undervalues running backs. It is a passing league, driven by quarterbacks, that puts an emphasis on offense and scoring. Running back Zach Zenner just so happens to be a victim of being undervalued by his own team.

Ranking 30th in rushing yards isn’t going to do the Detroit Lions any favors. Signing guard TJ Lang and tackle Ricky Wagner upgraded the offensive line, in theory. Losing left tackle Taylor Decker to injury sets things back but they have options in place. Improving the running game starts in the trenches.

You need to have capable backs if you truly wish to run the football efficiently. It is well-known running back Theo Riddick is mostly a pass catcher, with the occasional carry sprinkled in. Dwayne Washington is not ready for an every-down role at the position. The role most suitable for Matt Asiata is that of a special teamer/short yardage back. This leaves running backs Ameer Abdullah and Zach Zenner as the only serious contenders for being the lead dog.

Using a committee approach is the best way for the Lions to use Abdullah and Zenner. Both are quality backs that have left many fans speculating who the best option might be. The Lions organization wants nothing more than to see Abdullah be the number one guy. Regardless, I believe Zenner needs to be the starter if the Lions want to see the most success in the running game.

"“Just seeing [Zenner’s] growth,” Anquan Boldin said in a Detroit Free Press report by Dave Birkett. “Whenever you have a young guy like that who’s able to play every down, that’s big. He’s a guy that can run the ball effectively, he can catch out of the backfield, he can pick up blitzes. I saw him personally mature over the year, and he grabbed the coaches’ confidence. They weren’t shy about putting him in there. When they did put him in there, he responded well.”"

You can’t ignore the recognition he’s been receiving. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks threw tons of respect Zenners’ way. Not that Abdullah isn’t a solid player, he just isn’t standing out among his peers as much as his fellow running mate.

Zenner needs to start over Abdullah. The man more deserving of the starting job is the undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State in 2015, even though Ameer is a second round pick.

The more healthy option has been Zenner. He has played in 20 games to Abdullahs’ 18. The latter has had injuries to his shoulder in 2015 and a foot in 2016, both somewhat serious.

Zenner has been more medically available. His punctured lung in 2015 was a freak injury to say the least. 2016 was a year that he saw no injury, although he was a healthy scratch the first two games.

Abdullah is not a between-the-tackles runner that can handle a lot of carries. He has never eclipsed 16 carries in his career. Only two rushing touchdowns are on his NFL resume, which is half of what Zenner has. Another thing—in case anyone forgot, Abdullah has fumbling issues and can’t pass protect.

You’d think a guy that was 12th in the NFL in yards after contact and forced 12 missed tackles on only 99 attempts would garnish more consideration as the starter. After Abdullah was lost for the season after just two games, Riddick became the starter and Zenner became the backup.

When Riddick came out of the game, using Zenner as an up-the-gut runner was far too easy to neutralize. Hence why the third-year running back was stuffed for no gain on 15.9 percent of his carries. Riddick went down with injury and that opened the door for Zenner to be far less predictable to stop. As a result, his numbers took a sizable jump.

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The underdog has always been Zach Zenner. Maybe he should be underappreciated by his own team, because when he is finally the starter, it will be that much sweeter.