When people say that “running backs don’t matter,” the point is not, of course, that teams can win without running backs or running games altogether. The Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahwaks, with their run-led offenses and 41 combined wins in the 2019 season could tell you that. The actual point of the “running backs don’t matter” meme has more to do with the thought that, with exceedingly rare exceptions, the skill set required to excel at the position is common enough, and scheme-dependent enough, to render running backs ill-advised players when it comes to high draft picks and lucrative contract extensions.
In 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars ignored this philosophy and selected LSU running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick. In doing so, the team held fast with the idea of Blake Bortles at quarterback, and banked on Fournette becoming the epicenter of an offense that would lead with old-school power, and remain mistake-proof enough to let the Jaguars’ top-flight defense be the real story. And with that commitment to Bortles, the very definition of a replacement-level player, Jacksonville made a quarterback-level commitment to the fungible player, and revealed a remarkable misunderstanding of the importance of the quarterback position in the modern NFL. The Jaguars left Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson on the board because they didn’t want to be wrong about Bortles, and they’ve paid the price for that ever since they came within a few plays of beating the Patriots in the 2017 AFC Championship game.
With the Monday news that the Jaguars released Fournette, the 2017 draft pick seems even more erroneous in retrospect. Because Fournette never lived up to his billing as a power back who could define an offense. Among running backs with at least 300 total attempts from 2017 through 2019, Fournette ranks fifth with 666 attempts, seventh with 2,631 yards, tied for 10th with 17 rushing touchdown, and 33rd in the NFL with a ghastly 3.95 yards per attempt. Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, who the Packers took in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, leads the NFL over that period of time with 5.02 yards per carry, and Jones’ 2019 total of 16 rushing touchdowns is one less than Fournette’s career total.
But wait. as they say, there’s more!
For an alleged power back, Fournette doesn’t do as much as you’d expect to create additional yards in power situations. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranked fifth in the NFL last season with 886 yards after contact, but that played out to just 3.34 yards after contact per carry, which ranked 11th. And his 42 missed tackles on rushing attempts was far below the league-leading 69 put up by Josh Jacobs of the Raiders. Fournette is not a predominant factor in the passing game, he’s not a top-flight blocker, and it’s going to be hard for him to rise above the idea that he’s an 1980s running back in the new millennium. Guys like this aren’t the foundation of their offenses — they’re rotational entities at best.
And even given the proposition that Fournette would be better-served in a rotation, his success will be far from automatic. Fournette is a running back who generally needs open space to make things happen — he’s not going to work his way out of difficult situations on a consistent enough basis for that to be a hallmark of his style.
Let’s go to the tape.
This 23-yard run against the Falcons in Week 16 of the 2019 season is an example of how Fournette can take advantage of personnel and pre-snap motion. Here, he’s aided by receiver Dede Westbrook moving from the “X” position to the backfield, and by right guard A.J. Cann and right tackle Jawaan Taylor pulling to the left and taking out their targets — end Vic Beasley and safety Ricardo Allen. All Fournette has to do is to wait, hit the gap, and go, though the fact that Beasley is able to recover and catch him from behind with an ankle tackle is not a ringing endorsement of Fournette’s explosiveness or power in the open field.
This one-yard run against the Raiders in Week 15 is more indicative of what happens when Fournette doesn’t have a clear path. The lack of an ability to puzzle his way out of a disadvantageous situation speaks to his need for things to be in place if he’s to succeed. If your running back isn’t going to outrun anybody to the edge, and he isn’t going to bust through potential tacklers, what’s the point?
Now, this 66-yard run against the Jets in Week 8 presents the optimal version of Fournette at this point in his career. Here, he’s able to get skinny and time the gap just right against an eight-man box, and it’s off to the races in a relative sense.
And this 81-yard run against the Broncos in Week 4 is as good as it gets from our subject. Here, he shows a bit of juice and agility, and you can see attempts to gain extra yards after contact in the open field. This won’t make anybody forget Marshawn Lynch in his prime or anything, but if this is the Leonard Fournette that is hitting the open market, it’s all good.
The problem is, of course, that you’re also getting the Leonard Fournette with the limited palette and the negative plays.
Fournette isn’t what I would call a disciplined runner — he’s not a sustainer in that you can rely on hallmarks of his style, and it’s clear he needs to learn how to use his 6-foot-0, 228-pound frame for maximum impact. Ideally, he’ll find a new home that places a premium on power running with a diverse set of run schemes, and a need for a back with his skill set (as limited as it may be) in a rotational sense. That could include Baltimore, San Francisco, New England, Seattle, Washington, and Chicago.
As long as you know what you’re getting in Leonard Fournette, and more importantly, what you’re not getting, and Fournette is open to development, his second NFL home could be a more positive environment than his first. No matter where he was drafted, he’s not likely to ever be a feature back again without some serious development and the right environment.