Coming out of Southern Methodist University, Zach Line wasn't the most well known name and didn't play a position considered at a premium in the NFL. Considered by a number of organizations, including CBS, Walter Football and Optimum Scouting as one of the top three fullbacks, Line was still prepared to enter the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
"The expectations were pretty clear," Line said of the fact that he went undrafted. "I heard from everybody that I was supposed to get drafted, but I also heard that those three days are unpredictable and you can never know."
"I expected the worst and the 'worst' happened, but it's not really the worst. I ended up on an NFL team and right now I'm in a great place to win a Super Bowl."
Those who told Line he was in a position to get drafted weren't wrong. Line does all of the tertiary things you expect in a running back or fullback that you would consider "complete". In fact, he was called during the fifth round by a coach of an AFC team and was told he would be their next pick—presumably one of the three AFC teams that pursued him in free agency.
He was told a second time that he would be that team's pick, but was again passed over in the sixth and seventh round. No doubt, this AFC team would have loved a steady presence in the backfield, protecting the quarterback.
An effective pass protection player, Line is accomplished at diagnosing blitzes and preventing linebackers from getting to the quarterback.
"We ran the spread. I was the only running back, so when we pass the ball I was mostly running into linebackers and D-Linemen. So, my pass protection is great."
The film confirms that. Isolated as one of the best pass protecting running backs in the class by Matt Waldman, it was Line's ability to read defenses and get leverage against second-level players that allowed him to consistently stay on the field for the Mustangs. His technique is solid throughout his body, with excellent hand placement, footwork and strength.
It's this strength that the Vikings hope to use. When not engaged in pulling two-and-a-half ton trucks, the young fullback has used his strength to dominate at the line of scrimmage.
Looking like a traditional "power" back designed to punch through the lin in short yardage situations, Line has consistently demonstrated an ability to push defenders back or use a devastating stiff arm to keep tacklers off of him.
For now, the Vikings have primarily lined Line up at fullback, although Line says, "fullback isn't the only spot I want to play."
That's fine, given how much the Vikings like to use versatile players on offense in order to maximize their flexibility out of any formation.
He has 599 receiving yards for SMU to go with his school record 4185 rushing yards—a record previously held by Eric Dickerson. He demonstrates some polish when running routes and has good hands, making him a somewhat ideal checkdown option in the flats should Ponder find his primary reads covered.
The rookie sees himself as versatile, but not necessarily an "H-back" as he isn't ready to commit to a particular term right now.
"Hard for me to comment on that," he said when asked about whether he sees himself in that role. "I'll probably be moving back and forth ... but, we'll see where [Coach Frazier] puts me come preseason and gametime, hopefully."
There's some concern that he's not quite the same type of player that the Vikings have employed at fullback before, given his rustiness at lead blocking. "I haven't had my hand in a three-point stance since my junior year of high school. So, it'll take some adjustment, but it was good to have OTAs and minicamps to get used to that."
That doesn't mean he's not eager to seek out advice from those of a more traditional mold.
"Obviously, I'm primarily a fullback. Jerome Felton has been helping out a lot. I'm pretty good with the playbook, the meeting rooms and studying film, but when it ones to those small questions you don't know, I tend to ask him instead of the running backs coach just because he's a fellow fullback."
It's not just veterans he's talked to for advice, however. Undrafted free agents from other years have been helpful. In particular, Andrew Sendejo told him that "making splash plays that will impact the game" on special teams is how to make his mark, although he was quick to acknowledge that no two paths to the NFL are the same.
It may seem odd that a relatively highly touted undrafted free agent would choose to go to a team that may look like it is settled at his chosen position. He had six teams to choose from.
"I had Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Tennessee, New Orleans, Dallas and the Houston Texans. I was in between probably Pittsburgh and Minnesota."
There's a good chance that the team that called him was Pittsburgh, as Houston had traded away its fifth-round pick in a trade with the St. Louis Rams. Tennessee is the only other AFC team he listed that had at least one pick in each of the final three rounds.
Some of those teams don't have a settled fullback or have more spots open for a running back spot than the Vikings do.
"I just saw a good fit. Fullback isn't the only spot I want to play, I want to contribute on special teams and the coaches seemed like they were positive about me contributing there. I'm just looking for a team that was on the rise, a team that was a good fit for me and that's what they had."
The specific blocking scheme the Vikings use is somewhat familiar to Line, although it had been a while since he'd run it. "In high school, we kind of had the same thing. I like the pound the rock style we had here. Throw the ball a little, but smashmouth football. That definitely enticed me coming here."
NFL draft analysts see Line as a prototypical third-down back. Without a lot of straight line speed, and mostly initial burst to his game, Line looks to be the type of running back you would use to protect Adrian Peterson from 3rd-and-short situations, despite his success there.
He's not a laterally quick or elusive player, but he is patient and demonstrates vision at the line—something he had to develop quickly running from four yards back instead of the more traditional eight.
It seems like a zone scheme would do well as the best style of running for him would seem to be more of a one-cut type scheme where he can choose a hole and commit to it instead of what he would do in more restrictive schemes. Given his decisionmaking when the defense overloads a side, the former SMU player may have found a good fit.
Right now, he'll have to take Sendejo's advice and focus on being the best special teams player he can be. He's set to do well as a blocker and can even moonlight in being a punt gunner, both historically positions he's played in college.
With Peter King and Sports Illustrated eyeing him, Line may get more than a little attention this year. But that won't make his path any easier.