Why Leonard Fournette Still Looks Like a Headache

A detailed analysis of Leonard Fournette's fantasy prospects for 2020.

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Way back in 2017, the ever-needy Jaguars saw fit to invest the draft’s fourth pick in Leonard Fournette, the standout, near-Heisman runner from LSU. Four years later, it’s still puzzling as to why. There are strong arguments, of course, against sinking that high a pick into any running back. But Fournette, in particular, has yet to show more than brief flashes of what Jacksonville needed from that slot.

  • He’s been plodding and inefficient, both as a runner and in the passing game.
  • He’s struggled for long stretches with lingering injuries that have sapped a lot of his time and impact.
  • And he’s been a relative headache to boot - so much so that the team tried hard to unload him this spring via trade.
  • His saving grace for fantasy - a surprising amount of receiving production over the past two years - is likely to take a tailspin with Chris Thompson on board.

Another Year, Another Ho-Hum Stat Line

The Jaguars have worked hard to shore up their offensive line woes. They now boast a strong interior, anchored by left guard Andrew Norwell and center Brandon Linder, and they’ve got two recent second-round picks (Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor) serving as road-graders on the outside. It’s not an elite group, but it’s definitely on the rise and returning all five starters from 2019. In May, Footballguys’ Matt Bitonti offered some (measured) praise and handed them an A- grade in run blocking.

The stage is set for Fournette to take a step forward as a runner, which is certainly possible for the 25-year-old. But there’s little historical reason to project it.

Dating back to his 2017 rookie year, Fournette has taken on the league’s fifth-most touches, a robust 22.2 per game. That’s more usage than the likes of Melvin Gordon III, Derrick Henry, or Alvin Kamara have seen over that stretch. But unlike those guys, Fournette has yet to string together much efficiency or dynamism. In fact, he’s routinely performed near the bottom of the pack in most measures:

Among RBs w/100+ Rushes per Season
Category
Percentage
2019 Rank
2018 Rank
Breakaway Run
4.9
25th
42nd
Broken Tackle
12.8
36th
35th
Positive Run
79.6
36th
28th
Goal Line Success
37.5
33rd
25th

As a result, his fantasy pay-off has always been tied strictly to volume, with blah production on a per-touch basis:

Among 48 RBs w/300+ Touches from 2017-2019
Category
Amount
Rank
Yards per rush
3.95
37th
Yards per touch
4.55
35th
PPR points per touch
0.77
34th

Based on his recent volume, Fournette would be an easy RB1 in any format with more efficiency. And with that kind of upside, he does make speculative sense as a top-15 option at the position. Still, among his ADP tier, there are a handful of guys with similar volume outlooks but more reason to be excited about it.

Never a Sure Thing

The NFL is wildly unpredictable, and of course, no fantasy asset should be taken for granted. An injury or suspension could strike anyone at any time. But Fournette has been an elevated risk - in both those regards - dating back to his final year at LSU. In 2016, Fournette sprained his ankle badly, an injury that would cost him his final bowl game and linger throughout his first two years in the NFL. He’s also lost time to a quad bruise, a recurring hamstring strain, and a fairly minor, unrelated foot injury. Altogether, injuries have cost him 10 of 48 games and bits and pieces of others. He’s no stranger to the Questionable tag, which is never a fun trait for one’s RB1 or RB2 slot to hinge on.

It was encouraging to see Fournette start and finish 15 games last year, and his Week 17 absence looked more precautionary than anything. Perhaps, with that long-term ankle trouble off his plate, he’ll be less of an injury risk going forward. But there are other concerns over Fournette’s full-season availability. He’s long had an acrimonious relationship with the Jaguars organization; to be fair, he’s far from the first in that regard. But it did cost him a game back in 2017 when he skipped treatments on his ankle and spent a healthy week in street clothes. Since then, he’s added a (relatively minor) arrest, a league suspension for fighting, and a nasty contract squabble as a result of the latter. It’s no surprise the front office declined his fifth-year option, nor that they reportedly tried hard to trade him off in April.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Fournette likely won’t be dealt. But with such a shaky history, his workhorse leash probably isn’t very long, and the team has no incentive to commit much to him.

His Passing Fancy Looks Like a Passing Fancy

The primary feather in Fournette’s cap - and the only reason he’s been genuinely fantasy-relevant - has been his surprising receiving volume. He’s produced 98 receptions and 707 yards over his past 23 games, a better rate than over that same span. What's concerning is Fournette's target share was more a byproduct of alternative options on the depth chart than an indication of his underlying skills as a pass-catcher. Which makes his value as a receiver subject to change if we can pinpoint alternatives on the rebuilt roster.

He hasn’t done much with his catches. Fournette has been little more than a checkdown guy because he lacks route-running precision or open-field vision. Among 81 backs with 30+ receptions over the past three years, his 7.53-yard average ranks just 55th. And it’s puzzling how an NFL full-timer could catch 134 balls yet find the end zone just twice. Jacksonville quarterbacks simply haven’t prioritized him near the goal line; he has just six career targets inside the 10-yard line.

Enter Chris Thompson? Thompson, a long-time third-down specialist in Washington, signed with Jacksonville in the offseason and threatens Fournette's role in obvious passing downs. Thompson averaged 31 snaps and 5.4 targets a game over the past 3 seasons, mainly playing for Jay Gruden -- the Jaguars new play-caller. Thompson was the dominant backfield receiving option throughout Gruden's tenure: Thompson has dominated the passing game out of the backfield for Gruden, more so with each passing year in fact:

Share of Receptions by RBs
Season
%
2014
77.8
2015
60.9
2016
69.7
2017
77.1
2018
80.9
2019
76.1

Staff Projections

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
Justin Howe
15
233
977
6
42
329
1
3
David Dodds
15
210
869
6
53
392
2
3
Bob Henry
15
250
1020
7
50
380
2
1
Maurile Tremblay
16
255
1087
5
69
495
1
4
Jason Wood
14
225
925
6
60
425
2
0

Final Thoughts

The fantasy world has spent the past two years waiting for Fournette’s star turn, the putting-it-all-together season that turns his elite workhorse volume into a clear RB1 line. But for a number of reasons, it’s yet to come to light, and it’s hard to find much optimism for a 2020 turnaround. It’s not like the rudderless Jaguars have improved much this offseason. And Fournette still looks like a plodding, one-gear runner incapable of taking a big leap on his own. Without his recent receiving volume, he’d look even less inspiring, and it appears the team is largely moving on from that. Fournette remains a stout RB2 in fantasy circles - guys with this kind of three-down usage aren’t to be ignored. But many are losing faith in a big RB1 leap, and it’s easy to see why.

Other Viewpoints

The great Matt Harmon is looking at all the pieces of the Fournette puzzle… and he’s not impressed in the upshot:

Associating your fantasy running backs with bad offenses is generally not a good idea. Jacksonville should be one of the worst next year… There’s a price for everyone. At some point, Fournette will become a bargain. But that area is probably around Round 4 or 5 and I bet there will always be a wide receiver I prefer.

Derek Lofland of FantasyPros can’t get over all the drama and bumps him down accordingly:

When I see Fournette as the 14th-ranked running back and the 27th-ranked overall player, I cannot imagine why he is that well-liked by fantasy experts when he is that hated by his NFL team. I would be more surprised if Fournette was a top-10 fantasy back this year than I would be if he was not in the top-40. I see no reason to invest the type of draft capital that Fournette is commanding given his contract situation, the failed trade attempts, and the new offense.

Still, numberFire’s Vaughn Dalzell values his volume floor and overall ceiling enough to take the plunge:

In all, we [at numberFire] have Fournette at 1,266 total yards and 7.2 total touchdowns. He is probably best suited as a high-end RB2 for 2020, but with so few workhorse backs out there, Fournette's volume gives him a solid floor as well as enticing upside, especially if the touchdown pendulum swings the other way for him.


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