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The Gut Check No. 420: Buy Leonard Fournette, Buy Him Now

Need to pay the premium for an RB1? Matt Waldman says Jacksonville is your destination.  

Straight, no Filter 

If you need an RB1 for your fantasy team, make a deal for Leonard Fournette. Pay for him like he's an RB1. Don't get too cute about the negotiation; pay the premium and put him in your lineups. 

After watching the Jaguars against the Texans, I'm sold on the fit for re-drafters. I was always sold on the talent, even if studying it with a more critical eye than most.

the details of fournette's game

I've been watching Leonard Fournette since high school. That statement alone may lead you to think I'm a fanboy of the running back. Not at all. 

I didn't inhale the vapors that ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill experienced when he watched Fournette and labeled him the best high school running back in a decade. However, you didn't need much exposure to be high on Fournette's talents.

The best traits of Fournette's game were already ingrained in is play. Below is my mini report on Fournette as a high school player. Take note of my assessment of his receiving talents, which a lot of NFL scouts and coaches did not value properly because LSU didn't throw the ball much to its backs: 

Decisiveness

Although bigger, faster, and agiler than most players he faced, Fournette consistently hits the hole with authority. Whether the hole was as wide as the Gulf of Mexico or a crease as tight as ironed slacks, Fournette takes what he sees and doesn’t dance.

What we don’t know is if Fournette changes his style after he gets a steady dose of SEC defenders smacking him in the mouth. I’m inclined to believe Fournette won’t lose his will with a jump in competition, but it is something to watch at this early stage of his career.

Pad Level

Fournette has an upright style. This alone never concerns me. Eric Dickerson, Eddie George, Adrian Peterson, Chris Brown, and Darren McFadden all have an upright style. Only McFadden’s style concerned me.

The rest of these runners knew how to attack defenders and generate good pad level to finish runs as needed. Fournette displays the same tendency. This is a powerful kid who can run with high knees. When a big back shows his opposition little else but knees, elbows, and shoulders, the defense is in for a long, hard day at the office.

Fournette runs like a boss that can drive you to take a permanent lunch break at 10:30 am.

Speed

Whether it's turning the corner at the second level with a dip to the outside, a deep pass route, or a kick return, Fournette has the jets to turn a gain of 10-15 into a breakaway run. ESPN’s Tom Luginbill says Fournette is “a faster Todd Gurley.”

Fournette ran a 10.68-100 meter dash. My wife still holds her high school record in the 100 with 11.2 seconds – and 0.19 seconds slower than the current U.S. high school record (Note: I recently discovered she ran a 10.78-second 100m) — and he’s 100 pounds heavier than my wife was as a track athlete. 

Jeff Demps holds the record with 10.01 seconds (at least until Track and Field News ratifies Travis Friday’s 10.00-mark). It’s no exaggeration to say that Fournette is a big man with little man’s speed — and it’s likely he’ll learn to get faster on the field as he matures.

Hands

What really stood out were the multiple highlights of receptions where he was led into traffic, made the catch in stride, and maintained possession after contact. He looked liked a top tight end prospect on some of these seam routes.

Feet and Hips

Fournette varies his stride length, the pace of his stride, and he demonstrates that mind-eyes-feet integration to wait a split-second for a hole to open and blast through it. He also has the hip flexibility to bend to the edge and bounce plays away from a defender’s angle. He can use his feet and hips in conjunction to avoid wraps or angles the way I have seen the likes of bigger backs like Adrian Peterson or Ryan Mathews at the second level.

Like Peterson, Fournette can take those short steps to change direction and then accelerate down hill like he’s leaving the field in a 100-meter sprint.  I haven’t seen any serious lateral cuts, but when you can flip your hips as quick as Fournett to change direction it’s an even better asset than one of those little-man jump cuts.

Balance

This stood out for me as much as anything I’ve seen on tape. He bounces off contact, he can maintain his footing with multiple changes of direction and he maintains his balance while running through contact where he has to vary his stride to avoid a wrap to his legs. When a back his size consistently gets his knees high and feet high off the ground to avoid wraps in traffic, it’s an indication that the back as serious promise.

Fournette was a freshman and sophomore sensation at LSU and earned comparisons to Adrian Peterson. When I took an extended look at his game, I chaffed at the comparison. Please understand, that I study these skill positions in so much depth that I see the differences in their games in ways that a lot of people don't know how (or don't care) to examine.

On the surface, the rough comparison between the two made sense: both players are big, fast, and can hit creases like jackhammers.  A deeper look reveals that Peterson can cover a wider range of field with a lateral cut and Fournette is a more polished receiver. Peterson's agility also gave him a more facility as a zone runner.

As Fournette's college career unfolded, I admired Fournette's style greatly despite the fact that I got pushback from "LSU superfans" when I believed his stylistic comparison was closer to Tyrone Wheatley than Peterson. I loved Fournette's desire to impose his will on a defense even if I thought that his agility is more limited than the backs most used as a comparison.  

Ultimately, the refined comp I made for Fournette was Stephen Davis, which also befuddled fans and media because they thought of Davis as a plodding power back. What they didn't realize is that Davis actually ran a faster 100 meters in high school than Fournette. 

A contact of mine working in the league thought the Davis comparison was one of the best and most rational that he heard on Fournette among media, NFL GMs, or scouts. Despite my belief that Fournette's tape revealed a back who was much better suited to a specific scheme, the analysis graded Fournette as the top running back prospect in my 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio pre-draft publication. 

Based on my 13 years of writing this publication and the 5 years I've been writing a post-draft addendum, I personally favor talent a little more than immediate situation. However, my fantasy audience of dynasty owners ironically value players like re-drafters even when they think they aren't. They want an update about team and scheme fit after the draft and I'm happy to oblige (video sample).

At first, they assume my post-draft publication offers the most value and I'm simply selling my pre- and post-draft analysis as a package deal because of all the work I put into the pre-draft. I try to tell them different, but they don't believe it until they experience it.

While there are 1-3 cases every year, the post-draft yields analysis in favor of a lesser known player whose talent, scheme fit, and depth chart create a perfect storm of immediate fantasy value, there are more cases where my pre-draft assessments bear out longer-term.

While Fournette was my No. 1 runner in my pre-draft assessment, he was my post-draft publication's No. 2 back and No. 3 fantasy rookie overall behind Christian McCaffrey and Corey Davis. The Panthers scheme is similar to what McCaffrey did at Stanford and Davis was a great fit in Tennessee.

In theory, Fournette was a strong fit for Jacksonville. Tom Coughlin wanted a tough, downhill running game.

He hired his former offensive line coach (who is known for successfully tailoring his schemes to his talents in New York and San Francisco) to get the most from Fournette, former Auburn mauler Cam Robinson, and the rest of this Jaguars offensive line. My concerns were the talent of the line, how much tailoring would be done for Fournette, and if the adjustments asked of Fournette would be reasonable.

Those questions led me to regard Fournette as a boom-bust player worth a top pick but with slightly higher risk. If the team makes the proper adjustments and has the personnel up front, Fournette could be a top fantasy option early. If not, he could be a major disappointment.

It's only the first week of the season but if you have to make a bold move to upgrade your team, Fournette should be a prime target. Let's roll the tape and see why...

Fournett'es week 1 performance

The first carry is telling on a number of levels. Look at the push the Jaguars line gets on the Texans' front. With a line of scrimmage reset this deep into Houston's backfield, Fournette has room to spin free of unblocked defenders meeting him in the hole. 

 

L Fournette first carry

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 10:26pm PDT

 

Jadaveon Clowney's reckless penetration inside is responsible for much of the crease that opens, but Fournette deserves credit for cutting his stride and dipping left of Clowney's hell-bent path into the open crease. It may not seem notable to the casual first viewing, but note how Fournette carries the defensive back 2-3 yards from the wrap point. He literally takes the defender for a ride. It's real power that would have been more apparent if the defender hitting him head-on at the end of the play didn't curtail the effort. 

Regardless of whether they are good or bad players, the guys who initiate the smack-talk tend to be the most insecure. Not always, but there are situations where it's easy to see this motivation. This nine-yard run to left tackle ends with the cornerback wrapping Fournette at the ankle and dropping the big back. Take a closer look and it's clear that Fournette knocked the corner on his butt and the defender got the tackle after holding on for dear life. 

 

L Fournette first carry

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 10:26pm PDT

 

When the play ends, the corner begins jawing with Fournette. Take it for what you will, but the only reason Kareem Jackson is talking is that he miraculously made the tackle after kissing the front bumper of that Jacksonville cement mixer and he held onto the tail pipe so he wouldn't get crushed.

That's the adrenaline of narrowly escaping death disguised as bravado on the second play of the season. The second play! If you're a defender congratulating yourself on the second play of the game because you got run over and hung on, you're in for a long day.

Once again, the Jaguars line gets a fantastic push on the play, resetting the Houston front at least a yard past the line of scrimmage with a pair of double teams by the center and guard and the tight end and left tackle. The fullback works across and sends the undisciplined Clowney into the pile and Fournette bounces the run easily to the edge and accelerates into his turn downhill.

The use of the fullback is an important scheme fit for the rookie. Fournette can make small adjustments as he approaches the line of scrimmage but he lacks the feet and agility of Devonta Freeman or Jamaal Charles in his prime.

 

Fournette jump cut

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 11:10pm PDT


Think of Fournette as that cement mixer: Tell him which lane of the tollway plaza he needs to set his course and give him a big runway and he could plow through a police car road-blocking him, but as him to make a sudden change 2-3 plaza lanes away at the last second and he'll wipe out and take wreck the plaza, too. 

This play below is an ISO scheme (the fullback leads the way into an isolated path for the runner to follow). Fournette accelerates behind the fullback, reads the opening lane adjacent to the lead blocker and veers through it downhill to a collision point with the Texans' defensive backs for 10 yards. 

 

Fournette ISO

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 10:40pm PDT


NFL offenses are trending towards scatbacks and spread formations, but so are defenses built to contain them. These defenses aren't built to stop run-heavy power offenses. Build a unit that can wear them out and you build an exceptional offense that can contend. San Francisco did this with Frank Gore when they went to the Super Bowl. The Seahawks managed two appearances in the big game when Marshawn Lynch was healthy. The Ravens also won with a power element in its offense. This is Jacksonville's plan and Fournette is just the talent to execute it. 

It doesn't mean Jacksonville won't spread the field, but it's building its run game so Fournette can work effectively from shotgun. This play doesn't count due to a holding call, but you can see the extent of Fournette's cutback ability in most cases. I also enjoy how he swats past the reach of a falling J.J. Watt in the same way I swatted away Jene Bramel's indignant reaction about my Jaguars over Texans upset pick on Sunday morning.

Why not a little trash talk among friends, right?

 

Didn't count but LF swats Watt like a fly.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 10:48pm PDT

 

I like this Fournette-Watt encounter even more. Fournette's strength to run through this penetration and wrap is not a fluke.

 

Fournette-Watt2

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 10:58pm PDT

 

Watt hits Fournette in the thigh with his reach, nearly rebounds off the contact and slides down the leg. This is good form, but Fournette has the strength to lift his knees and pull through the wrap while delivering a well-placed baby stiff-arm to Watt's inside shoulder. It's not a big gain, but it's the difference between a stuff a yard behind the line by the best defender in the game who had him dead to rights and a gain of three. 

Although Fournette can't cut like Freeman or Charles, I noted his hip flexibility as a high school runner. This is more important than fancy footwork and we see this play out on a screen pass to the left flat.

 

Fournette stop start

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 10, 2017 at 11:08pm PDT

 

The ability to flip his hips downhill empowers this stop-start move to avoid the linebacker in the flat and get downhill, nearly accelerating past D.J. Reader (my wife's cousin, who is also pretty quick for his size) for a long gain. 

Fournette's 26-carry, 100-yard performance was against a Texans unit that is similar to the 2016 incarnation that ranked 11th against the rush last year. Last year's runners that reached the century-mark against Houston were Gore, LeGarrette Blount, and C.J. Anderson. The complete Jaguars depth chart earned 136 combined rushing yards against Houston in two games last year.

Yes, but Tom Savage was horrible, Duane Brown wasn't in the lineup, and the Jaguars defense manhandled the Texans offense into a favorable game script, right?

Even if Brown were in the lineup, was there really anything different that we could say about the Houston offense last year? I don't think so.   

However, the Jaguars offensive line is a good match for its new scheme and running back, and it should give the defense a chance to play aggressive football. Jacksonville may not emerge as a true contender this year, but neither the Texans nor the Colts are in a position to win the AFC South. 

If I were to make a prediction, Jacksonville contends for a wild card spot (and likely loses on tiebreakers to a conference opponent) thanks to its strengths listed above. 

Fournette's fantasy outlook

Clayton Gray's Strength of Schedule lists Jacksonville as a "hot" team to own. It has five "cold" weeks, five "hot" weeks and five neutral weeks (six, if you count this Texans unit in Week 1) on its schedule. 

It's also apparent that, regardless of schedule, Jacksonville wants to feed Fournette and let him wear out defenses. Fournette's carries this weekend were short-to-moderate gains, but don't expect that to be the sole trend. As the year progresses, expect Fournette to earn some big gains that put him over the century mark in the first halves of contests—especially late October through early December. 

I'd act fast on the running back situation. David Johnson is out for at least eight weeks. Marshawn Lynch is getting eased into a workload. Jordan Howard and DeMarco Murray likely sharing a greater amount of their workloads with Tarik Cohen and Derrick Henry than expected. And, the outcome of the Ezekiel Elliott controversy still in doubt.

Fournette is one of a few backs that I'd consider as an elite RB1 value. While I am not as enthusiastic about Kareem Hunt's value, the Johnson injury and the rest of Week 1's data may make him worth the risk. I wouldn't do it for reasons I mentioned in this week's Top 10, but I see the potential value (more below).

If you're trying to play the market and upgrade to Fournette, you're the type of reader who is going to ask me a ton of questions. This is not the decision for you to make and I'm not going to answer those questions. You're THAT guy who loves to wheel-and-deal and nothing looks good enough when you hear about a strong take regarding the possibility of something better. 

I'm speaking to those of you who truly need a running back. How do you know you need a running back? In essence, if you don't get a viable starting RB with a high-touch/target rate, you have little shot of making the postseason.

My criteria:

  • Your lineups have a two-RB minimum and 3-5 RB maximum and you have one viable starter with likely RB2 upside, at best. 
  • The same point above, but you have a back with RB1 upside but he has a potential committee split, hurt for an extended period, or he's Lynch.
  • Your roster only has 1-3 high-touch, high-target options: You took your chances on big-play receivers who won't see double-digit targets and committee backs who aren't earning at least 15 touches.

If you have receiver depth or you can package a top receiver, elite tight end, and/or a quality back with every-week RB2 upside for Fournette, I'd recommend the steep price to get Fournette—if the fantasy GM is even open to trading him. 

All trades are gambles, but if you know your team isn't going anywhere, make the early shake up and put Fournette at the top of your trade list. Other suggestions at running back include McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. Kareem Hunt will likely deliver as a borderline RB1 even if I value him as an RB2. However, Hunt's value is bolstered by the perception of the Chiefs offense whereas Cook and Fournette's offenses lacked that same stability in fans' eyes.

The difference for me with Fournette is his pass protection. He's a more proven option. Hunt is probably a safer addition if you want to "fail" to RB2 because his surrounding talent has a better track record. But if you're seeking that potential premium RB1, I'm more impressed with Fournette's performance.