Zack Moss is no stranger to pain, to competition, or having to prove that he should be the guy that commands the lion share of touches in a backfield. And after spending much of the offseason rehabbing an ankle injury suffered in the Buffalo Bills’ Wild Card win against the Indianapolis Colts, the second-year running back is hungry as he sets out to earn the role as the team’s No. 1 running back in 2021.
Despite boasting one of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL last season, Buffalo struggled to find consistent success in the run game. The team finished 20th overall, averaging 107.7 yards-per-game on the ground – a 4.2 yards-per-carry clip that ranked 19th in the league. The Bills’ struggles to run the ball worsened in the playoffs, as they averaged just 85.7 yards-per-game and the team was ultimately eliminated in the AFC Championship by the Kansas City Chiefs. But during the offseason, general manager Brandon Beane expressed confidence in both of Buffalo’s running backs, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, opting against using a draft pick on a ball-carrier – only adding veteran Matt Breida to the position group.
In a press conference before the 2021 NFL draft, Beane addressed the media and elaborated on his thoughts regarding the Bills’ lackluster rushing attack. He made it clear that he wasn’t pointing the finger at Moss or Singletary, explaining that he felt the lack of success on the ground was the fault of the offensive line and the team’s overall blocking execution rather than the ability of the running backs.
“Running the football is very complex and it’s obviously the O-line, it’s the tight ends, it’s the receivers and if one guy doesn’t make his block, the play’s probably dead,” Beane said. “There were times this year where we’re one guy away, and whether it’s a tight end or whether it was a lineman, it’s a big gainer and you’re going, ‘Gosh, if we just get this guy blocked’ and we had that at times. I’m not saying there’s no blame – sometimes the running back missed the hole – but it’s one of those things you got to practice, you got to emphasize and you got to work on it and that’s something that we’ll definitely look at. I’m not looking at Devin Singletary and Zack Moss and thinking those guys came up short for us.”
Many initially believed that statement was a smokescreen, that Beane said this to divert attention away from potentially taking a runner such as Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, or even Javonte Williams in the draft. But all seven rounds came and went without Buffalo addressing the position. Instead, the Bills added three humongous offensive linemen, backing up his claim that blocking was more of an issue than the running itself. Now entering the 2021 season, both Singletary and Moss will be competing to be that lead back that can take Buffalo’s already-potent offense to the next level.
While Singletary’s physical transformation over the offseason is well-documented, Zack Moss’s return to action may provide the team with the workhorse they’ve missed in the backfield since LeSean McCoy’s departure. Moss, who was drafted in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft, is a big (5-foot-10, 226-pounds) and compact downhill runner that punishes defenders who try and tackle him head-on. But he’s not just a bruiser. He’s got enough quickness to make second-level defenders miss in space, too.
Moss, like most rookies, had his fair share of ups and downs in his first professional season. But upon entering the NFL, the 23-year old had some unique roadblocks that only his 2020 NFL Draft classmates would understand in a year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent appearance on former NFL wide receiver Steve Smith’s podcast, Moss detailed the difficulties of not having a real offseason to train with coaches and peers. Without rookie minicamp, OTAs, or mandatory minicamp, Moss was thrown right into the fire in training camp.
“It was extremely difficult, just having no OTAs – just right out of Zoom to training camp,” Moss explained. “It was definitely rough. I had a lot of rough days where I just didn’t want to watch that film from that day. I knew I needed to get better. It was a lot of up and down days but I just tried to do my best to where I could just piece good days together so I could find my role in the offense and as a player.”
Moss got off to a slow start, averaging just 2.6 yards-per-carry on his first 22 carries. He missed three games early in the season with a toe injury, which undoubtedly interrupted his early development. But as the year progressed, Buffalo’s coaching staff gained more and more confidence in the former Utah star, as his growing snap count and carries significantly ate into Singletary’s workload.
Moss finished the regular season with 481 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 112 carries (4.3 yards-per-carry), adding another 95 receiving yards and one touchdown on 14 catches. But Moss wasn’t able to be a big part of Buffalo’s playoff run, suffering an ankle injury after picking up 21 rushing yards on seven carries and 26 receiving yards on four receptions against the Colts in the Wildcard round.
Dealing with injuries is nothing new to Moss, though, and he’s proven to be capable of coming back stronger and as a better version of himself following obstacles like the one he’s currently facing.
Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic detailed Moss’ struggles to overcome a long medical history that includes a broken arm, multiple shoulder sprains, and a torn meniscus that required surgery during his junior season with the Utes. But that laundry list of ailments wasn’t enough to stop the 23-year old from finishing his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leading rusher. In four years, Moss racked up 4,067 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns at a 5.7 yards-per-carry average, adding another 685 receiving yards and three scores. He was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2018.
While having to rehab an injury isn’t something that anybody wants to endure, Moss explained that his previous meniscus injury prepared him for the effort it takes to return and produce at a high level after surgery.
“Right now it hasn’t been tough from a physical standpoint,” Moss explained. “Mentally, I feel a little more comfortable with it because I’ve had an injury in college where I tore my meniscus and needed surgery and had to get back for my senior season. So I have experience dealing with all that type of stuff, the pressure with all of that.
“With this, I feel like I’m in some type of familiar territory. I know what it takes. I know how you have to attack rehabs. You have to be in a positive mindset every day when you go in there. You can’t go in with a negative mindset like, ‘Why I gotta do this? Why I gotta do that?’ You have to go home, stretch, you still need to do things. I was able to go through all those hardships the first time I had surgery and I went through those times where there were dark days, not talking to people, not wanting to leave the house. Putting out bad vibes to the trainers, acting like they’ve done something.”
Moss’ perspective on dealing with injuries not only provided him with valuable experience and knowledge regarding what it takes to come back from an injury on a physical level, but he also believes it allowed him to become more self-aware on a mental level. The Miami native admits that while he’s introverted by nature, he slowly learned that he can rely on others, particularly his girlfriend, to be a source of strength to help him stay in a positive headspace when he needs it.
“That taught me a lot about myself,” Moss told Smith. “I had never been tested mentally in that form. It showed me what I can handle as a person at this point in my life, and what I couldn’t handle. And it taught me that if I needed to rely on people, I had my girlfriend there, that’s a person I can shoulder off and know everything going to be fine.”
Now that the injury is behind him and training camp is around the corner, things are looking bright for the second-year back. During the team’s mandatory minicamp, Sean McDermott told the media that Moss is on track to take the field at the start of training camp. For Moss, this will be a crucial time for him to prove that he’s capable of being an every-down back, which means that in addition to being reliable as a runner and receiver, he’ll need to prove that he can be consistent and reliable as a pass protector. Moss appeared on the Buffalo Fanatics podcast in April and explained how important pass protection is for running backs that want to be on the field for all three downs.
“As a back, especially with the way the game is going nowadays, you have to be able to pass block, understand pass protections, know where blitzes are coming from, and know how to work with your offensive line,” Moss said.
According to Pro Football Focus, Zack Moss was the only running back in the NFL with over 50 pass-blocking snaps to not allow a single pressure. Devin Singletary allowed three hurries in 80 pass-blocking snaps.
Moss needs to make the most of every opportunity he gets when his number is called in training camp. Going from being the guy in college – that feature back that carries the ball every down – to seeing just 10 more carries than Josh Allen in 2020 certainly had to be difficult. But Moss understands that the team isn’t going to shy away from throwing the ball at a high rate after last year’s successes through the air. However, he knows that if he can be consistent, the coaching staff will be able to rely on him in critical moments. Moss has high expectations for himself and knows the amount of work he needs to put in if he hopes to achieve his goal of being one of the best to ever play the game.
“I think the best way to try and stay the best at something you do is to always attack it as if it’s something new to you,” Moss said to Smith on Cut To It. “I think once you start getting comfortable, that’s when you get passed up. (At Utah) If I’m thinking that I rushed for 1,000 yards three, four times, that’s when somebody’s going to come in and you’re going to be like, ‘Man, I took a break when I should have been working.'”
Moss’s mental toughness translates to the field as well, which is something he takes pride in and hopes his teammates follow his physical lead.
“Definitely very physical. That’s the way I like to play the game,” he said to Smith about his style of play. “I like to set the tone, just for myself and the team. Hopefully, those guys just follow suit. When I come to play, I’m leaving everything I got out there, no matter what nicks or knacks I got, I’m playing tough as shit.”
That toughness will be key if he hopes to separate himself from Singletary and secure the role as the lead back in Buffalo’s offense. For Moss, competition has never been something he’s shied away from. His work ethic and talent have allowed him to thrive and overcome obstacles in college and this season he has the opportunity to begin embarking on his goal of being one of the most dominant rushers in the league.
“I want to be one of the better players to ever play this game,” Moss told Smith when asked why he plays the game. “That’s something that’s always been a passion and has always driven me. There are times I’ve sat at home, or when I’m going through rehab and I just look at it like, these are just things that I need to go through to be great. No one said being great is easy. When I’m done, I want to look back and know that I was dominant at every level that I played with. I want my peers, guys that I played with, that I respected a lot, I want them to be able to say that they know I brought it every day.”