Is Leonard Fournette Poised for a Bounce-Back Season?

Is Leonard Fournette Poised for a Bounce-Back Season? article feature image

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Leonard Fournette

  • Leonard Fournette will be the lead back for the new-look Jaguars offense in 2019.
  • Ian Hartitz analyzes Fournette's season outlook and when you should look to pick him in your drafts.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.

The Jaguars were on their way to the Super Bowl as recently as January 21, 2018 before they blew a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Last season’s 5-11 campaign resulted in the organization moving on from Blake Bortles, but head coach Doug Marrone and most of the remaining core are sticking around to take one more crack at winning a championship.

One of the most feasible scenarios for a Jaguars’ resurgence in 2019 involves running back Leonard Fournette working his way into the conversation as one of the league’s best overall players.

The term ‘generational talent’ has been thrown around quite often at the running back position over the years, but it seemed to be somewhat warranted for Fournette back in 2017 after he was finished running over pretty much the entire Southeastern Conference.

What follows is a breakdown on Fournette’s talents as a running back as well as what we should expect from him as a fantasy football asset in 2019.

Fournette is a monster disguised as a running back

The NFL is a league comprised of the best-of-the-best athletes the world has to offer. And yet, some players are physically and athletically talented enough to stand out among the pack.

Fournette happens to be a rare specimen: 6-feet and 240-pounds of chiseled muscle and capable of running the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. Fournette is in the 97th-percentile of all running backs in Speed Score (PlayerProfiler), which basically means his combination of size, strength and speed is a real problem for pretty much any defender to deal with.

Six running backs have averaged at least 20 touches per game since 2017:

Le'Veon Bell
Ezekiel Elliott
Todd Gurley
Saquon Barkley
Melvin Gordon
Leonard Fournette 👀

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 13, 2019

Fournette was the No. 1 ranked running back in his recruiting class and has been under the national spotlight for the better part of the decade. Unfortunately, these overwhelming physical traits haven’t quite been utilized in the best possible manner during his time in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville hasn’t maximized Fournette’s talents to this point

College statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt. Still, Fournette’s ability to average 6.2 yards on 616 career rush attempts in LSU’s ancient offensive scheme vs. consistently sturdy SEC defenses is a pretty solid sign that he’s capable of big things as a ball carrier.

Fournette hasn’t had much of a chance at success to this point considering the frequency at which he’s faced loaded boxes.

  • 2018: 35.3% snaps with eight-plus defenders in the box (third among all RBs)
  • 2017: 48.5% (fifth)

Part of this is Fournette’s fault, as he’s always been a bit of a limited receiver when it comes to anything other than screens or routes into the flat.

The other part of the problem is the reality of consistently being the focal point of an offense led by a quarterback that defenses are happy to let throw the ball.

The Jaguars have easily ranked among the league’s worst pass offenses during Fournette’s two seasons as a pro:

  • QB Rating: 81.8 (27th)
  • Completion rate: 60.7% (26th)
  • Yards per attempt: 6.3 (23rd)

Bortles deserves plenty of the blame, but he’s also never exactly been blessed with a deep crop of competent pass catchers or dominant offensive line.

Add it all together and it’s possible that Fournette has been playing in just about the worst possible offense to accentuate his talents over the past 24 months.

The good news is the Jaguars have remained faithful about feeding their workhorse back, and they might just have a better environment for Fournette to thrive in this season.

2019 has the making of Fournette’s best year to date

The first reason to feel good about a bounce-back year from Fournette is new Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles, who has had an up-and-down career, but things have been mostly positive as long as his coach wasn’t Jeff Fisher.

Foles has posted a 63% completion rate and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt with a 61-to-23 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 43 career games without Fisher roaming the sideline.

Defenses haven’t had to respect the Jaguars’ deep passing attack for years, but that could change with Foles’ tear-drop deep ball now in play.

If only Justin Blackmon was around to track down b-e-a-utiful deep balls from Nick Foles

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 9, 2019

Also helping matters is an expected improvement in offensive line performance. The last two years have told different stories:

  • 2018: 21st in adjusted line yards per rush, 27th in adjusted sack rate
  • 2017: 13th in adjusted line yards per rush, 5th in adjusted sack rate

One big reason why comes down to injuries. The Jaguars’ offensive line was pretty much a walking graveyard in 2018.

  • Left tackle Cam Robinson missed 13 games with a knee injury
  • Backup left tackle Josh Wells missed nine games due to a groin injury and later a concussion
  • Third-string left tackle Josh Walker missed seven games with an ankle injury
  • Left guard Andrew Norwell missed five games with an ankle injury
  • Center Brandon Linder missed seven games with a knee injury
  • Right guard A.J. Cann missed one game with a triceps injury and also played through a hamstring injury
  • Right tackle Jermey Parnell missed three games with a knee injury

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has been replaced with John DeFilippo, who has a history of success with Foles dating back to his time as the Eagles quarterback coach.

The real question for DeFilippo’s new offense is just how much they’ll lean on Foles’ arm. The Vikings ranked fourth in pass-play rate (64.4%) in 2018 and fired DeFilippo after Week 14 in part because of his distaste for running the ball. The Jaguars have ranked 18th (58.6%) and 32nd (50.5%) in pass-play rate since drafting Fournette with the No. 4 pick of the 2017 draft.

The good news for Fournette is that much of his backfield competition from years past is gone: T.J. Yeldon signed with the Bills and Corey Grant remains a free agent. Fournette is thus a returning starter for an offense that is quietly losing a ton of carries and targets from last season.

10 backfields have at least 150 carries available (based on 2018 RB usage – 2019 depth charts, h/t @lars__berg )

Bears (261)
Chiefs (234)
Jets (223)
Jaguars (196)
Falcons (176)
Ravens (170)
Dolphins (164)
Saints (157)
Lions (156)
Texans (150)

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 6, 2019

Fournette’s “competition” comes down to career backups Alfred Blue, Benny Cunningham and Thomas Rawls, as well as rookie fifth-round pick Ryquell Armstead. The Jaguars clearly weren’t thrilled with the previous make up of their backfield, but DeFilippo seems to be fine with giving Fournette every chance to keep his bell-cow role.

“We’re really looking forward to Leonard having a big year … I’m going to call it what it is: He’s going to be a major reason where our offense goes. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Leonard Fournette needs to be a big part of this offense.”

Fournette is currently the PPR RB15 in average draft position. We can reasonably expect an offensive improvement in Jacksonville based on their upgrade at quarterback and potential for better health across the offensive line, and Fournette already managed to work as the RB12 and RB7 in PPR per game in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

As Fournette himself once said: A baller is going to ball, regardless of expectations. Don’t hesitate at drafting this baller sooner rather than later in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes this season.

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