Leonard Fournette always feels like the most nauseating top tier asset in the dynasty community. Whether it’s his injuries, team, or yards per carry, there is always an argument against his production. Commonly lost in this conversation is that he’s one of the most physically gifted backs in the league. Weighing in at 228 pounds and standing 6 feet tall, Leonard is only 9 pounds lighter and 3 inches shorter than Derrick Henry. Oh, and fun fact: in 2017 Leonard Fournette posted the top two fastest speeds for any player during the NFL season clocking 22.05mph and 21.76 mph respectively (yes, this includes Tyreek Hill). In this article I wanted to take a slightly different approach than I have in the past with Devin Singletary and Aaron Jones where I focused solely on a player’s ability. What makes Fournette a fascinating dynasty asset are all of the moving pieces around him. The intent of this piece is to provide information to assist the creation of your own opinion through my statistical analysis and information surrounding the current team situation Fournette finds himself in.
Fournette’s ability is difficult to question as he has proven he can be a workhorse NFL back. Playing 15 games in 2019, he finished with 265 rushing attempts for 1,152 yards (4.3 yards per carry), good enough for 4th and 6th in the league respectively. However, where he really proved to take a step forward this year was in the passing game, finishing with 76 receptions for 522 yards receiving on 100 targets (4th, 5th and 5th in the league at the running back position respectively). His consistency across all major statistical categories in 2019 is jaw dropping and likely how he was able to finish as the RB9 on the season, and as RB10 on a points per game basis in .5 PPR scoring.
Those critical of his ability will often point to his yards per carry 4.3 YPC in 2019, tied for 27th in the NFL, a significant improvement from his career average of 3.8 YPC. However, this stat fails to reflect the context in which those carries were happening. In his three years in the league, Pro Football Focus has ranked the Jacksonville offensive line 15th, 22nd, and 26th respectively and in 2019 his 1.4 yards before contact placed him 43rd for NFL backs with 85+ attempts. Behind this line he faced a loaded box (Eight defenders or more in the box) at the 10th highest rate of any running back that had 85 rushing attempts or greater (31.7% of his rushing attempts) – a complete recipe for disaster. Now why was his YPC as high as it is? Is it his ability to break tackles? Absolutely not – he was 32nd in attempts per broken tackle (tied with ageless wonder Frank Gore at 16.6). Rather it was a testament to his physical running style as he was 4th in the league in yards after contact (3.0). These stats reflect his ability to run into contact and carry the defender several yards before going down. Ultimately, this is why with any improvement to his offensive line, one would expect his YPC and rushing production to sky rocket.
Looking into Jacksonville’s usage of the running back position, with an understanding that Jay Gruden will be taking over play calling duties next year, consideration of his rushing and receiving workload may give insight into what to expect from Fournette in terms of utilization next season. Jacksonville finished 1st and 13th in rushing attempts per game over 2017 and 2018 respectively but dropped to 23rd in 2019 with Fournette having 20.6, 16.6 and 17.7 attempts per game over that time. Ultimately displaying that although as a team rushing attempts decreased, Fournette still received similar work. In contrast, since he entered the league, Jacksonville has finished 9th, 7th, and 7th in targets to the running back position respectively. This is unlikely to change with Gardner Minshew taking the reins at quarterback. In 13 games, Minshew targeted Fournette 81 times for a 19% target share. Although a small sample size, we did see his usage in two full games with Nick Foles where he received a 20% target share.
Where this is interesting is that Fournette received 36%, 19%, and a whopping 78% of the team’s targets for the position since coming into the league. This 78% last season is more than James White (57%), Alvin Kamara (63%), and Saquon Barkley (74%). While regression is likely, he will still maintain a relatively high proportion of the receiving work due to the inability of Ryquell Armstead in the receiving game relative to TJ Yeldon who was with the team prior. In his 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, draft enthusiast Matt Waldman stated that in his film review Armstead was consistently lacking ability in the passing game. Moreover, I would argue that a likely small decrease in receiving work load may be offset by a concurrent positive regression in rushing attempts and associated rushing touchdown rate. He has never been one to have many receiving touchdowns, with 2 in totality through his 36 game (0.06 receiving touchdowns/game) career thus far while averaging 0.67 on the ground his first two years. In 2019, this rushing touchdown rate decreased to 0.20. In summary, while the components of his box score may look different next season, it’s reasonable to expect similar production overall from a usage perspective.
As I alluded to above, the last major change to this organization is the acquisition of former Washington Head Coach Jay Gruden as their offensive coordinator. This is just one piece of the uncertainty with the Jacksonville front office. Fournette has displayed discontent with the organization in the past. Although he has publicly stated that he is happy in Jacksonville, his teammates who have left the organization have stated support for Fournette to do the same. The team’s head coach and general manager (who drafted him) are also on the hot seat after last season, making projections beyond 2020 even more difficult. The assortment of front office problems could be the subject of an article all their own, so I would like to focus on Jay Gruden and how he may utilize a back like Fournette. Gruden is respected for his work in Washington given what he was able to do with the resources he had. It is very difficult to predict how Gruden will utilize a back like Fournette. Many believe he was a good hire for the Jags (and Fournette) because during two of his three years as offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals the team finished within the top 10 in rushing attempts per game. While the game has evolved in the last seven years, the data does suggest that the potential for another Top 10 season is present. However, Jay’s usage of the running back has been muddied by the fact that the Redskins are substantially less rushing oriented. Three of the last four seasons they finished 24th or worse in rushing attempts per game and never finished above 20th in rushing touchdowns through his tenure as head coach. Overall, I am not sure if these statistics say more about Gruden, or about how subpar Washington’s performance has been the last few years. However, they did finish 20th as a team in targets to the running back position in 2019. That same year Chris Thompson led the share with 56% of the targets, outlining that Gruden isn’t afraid to use one guy for the majority of the work.
In conclusion, Fournette is someone who I will view moving through the off-season as a player who will maintain his production in 2020. Negative regression in receptions will likely be offset by positive regression in rushing touchdowns. The Jaguars are expected to remain a team built around the running game and while question marks exist regarding how Gruden will run this offense, it’s likely that improved offensive line play will increase his productivity regardless. You will notice I did not dive into his injury history, most notably a Grade 2 hamstring strain in 2018 which caused him to miss six games. Whether it’s Saquon Barkey or Darren Waller, many players across the league have suffered similar injuries and continue to play without the “injury prone” label that many place on Fournette. This is a fascinating area to study, however, I think a whole article can be devoted to this topic and did not want to probe this further herein. Regardless it needs to be considered in trying to gauge his dynasty value. I believe that the true value of Fournette comes from usage. Whether you believe his targets decline next year, positive regression for the team’s rushing attempts, or opportunity for rushing touchdowns, Fournette gets enough usage to produce at a high level. Although an elite talent, I believe that due to the team surrounding him Fournette doesn’t have quite the elite upside of backs like Nick Chubb or Alvin Kamara. Currently he is our MDF consensus RB11 for dynasty, and I would happily pay that price if his current owner is weary of next season. The Jaguars commitment to run the offense through him makes Leonard Fournette my ideal partner for a 1a -1b situation if paired with a steady back end RB1 like Josh Jacobs and an RB3 with upside such as Derrius Guice.