Putting Leonard Fournette’s rookie year in perspective

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The Jaguars used the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft on running back Leonard Fournette. As a rookie, Fournette topped 1,000 yards, and the Jaguars improved from 3-13 to the AFC Championship Game. That has led many people to say that Fournette is proof that drafting a running back high in the first round can dramatically improve a team’s fortunes.

Those people are wrong.

The reality is, while Fournette was fine as a rookie, he was far from the game breaker people made him out to be. And the Jaguars were a good team last year because of their defense, not because of Fournette’s contributions.

How do we know Fournette isn’t the reason the Jaguars were a good team? It starts with the way they played in the three games Fournette missed. Those three games Fournette missed were three of the Jaguars’ best performances of the season: Jacksonville went 3-0 without Fournette, outscoring their opponents 95-14. In the 13 games Fournette played, the Jaguars went 7-6 and outscored their opponents 322-254.

The Jaguars also rushed for an average of 158 yards a game in the three games Fournette missed, compared to 137 yards a game in the 13 games Fournette played. When Fournette was out, the Jaguars were just fine with T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and Corey Grant running the ball.

So where does the perception that Fournette had a great rookie year come from? Part of it is that Fournette had a 90-yard run and a 75-yard run, people saw those highlights and that’s what shaped their opinions of him. But if you take out those two runs, his average drops all the way from 3.9 yards per carry to 3.3 yards per carry. (By way of comparison, if you take out Le'Veon Bell‘s top two runs last year, his average drops only from 4.0 to 3.9 yards.)

Fournette’s average of 3.88 yards per carry was two-tenths of a yard below the overall league-wide average of 4.08 yards per carry. Is that because the Jaguars called on him to pick up first downs in a lot of short-yardage situations? Nope. He gained first downs on just 17 percent of his carries. That was the lowest first down percentage of any of the 19 running backs who gained at least 800 yards last year; the NFL average was 21 percent of all rushing attempts producing first downs.

The point of this isn’t to rip Fournette. It’s not that he’s a bad player, just that his value to the Jaguars was overstated. He’s certainly not evidence that spending a high draft pick on a running back is the way to turn around a franchise.

78 responses to “Putting Leonard Fournette’s rookie year in perspective

  1. Well-reasoned, but I hate this take. Leonard is indeed a gamebreaker, he just runs in an 8 or 9 man box so his YPC is not good. If they had any kind of a consistent downfield passing game to pull safeties / nickels out of the box, you’d consider him just as good as Zeke, Gurley, Bell, etc.

  2. Fournette’s physical style of running allows the Jags to control the ball and dominate time of possession. When he is in, naturally they are going to score less because the idea is to control the ball and grind out yard after yard. When he is out, the offense opens up and allows more opportunities for quick-strike scoring. So to compare the scores of when he is in and when he is out is flawed. Fournette is an asset to this Jags team and has helped in changing their mentality and approach to a tough, hard-nose, punch-you-in-the-mouth style of play. Your analysis means jack-s.

  3. I think he had a pretty solid year and help solidify an offence that was a bit suspect before this year. He also missed games vs CLE, ARI and STL – two of those teams would have helped his numbers a lot; they were two of the weaker teams he would have played. I would be pretty happy with having him as my #1 back if I was JAX.

  4. Ask Atlanta how important a running game is…All they had to do was run 3 straight times!

    Ask Seattle how important a running game is…All they had to do was run 3 straight times!

    In terms of importance to winning Superbowls, running backs matter more than wide receivers…When Seattle won their Superbowl, Marshawn Lynch was a top running back in the league…Who’s the last top wide receiver to win one?…

  5. Completely disagree with this. Fournette made teams plan defenses differently and wore down defenses by the 3rd quarter. He instantly made the Jags a lot more intimidating on offense. Completely worth a 1st round pick.

  6. The three games without Fournette were the 0-16 Browns, the 4-12 Colts, and the 7-9 Bengals.

  7. Well, he did have over 100 yards and 3 tds against the Steelers in Pittsburgh during the playoffs. He and Roethlisberger were the two best players out there by a pretty clear margin.

  8. He was pretty solid, not great but solid. Most importantly, he proved not to be injury prone. He got hurt once and came back strong two weeks later. I’d be pretty happy if he was my starting RB. His YPC should go up in his second season, the way he runs he should be in the 4.2-4.3 zone.

  9. I dont think those 3 games he was out prove anything. Teams scheme differently when he is in. Since he wasnt playing defenses didnt key on him. The other rbs get less attention. Sneaky unexpected running success causes panick on defense and opens the pass game.

    Its the Adrian Peterson effect.

  10. The reality is, while Fournette was fine as a rookie, he was far from the game breaker people made him out to be. “”
    -__________

    indunno man those two runs – the two fastest clocked times for a player last year- where he was running like 24 mph looked pretty game breaker ish

  11. In terms of importance to winning Superbowls, running backs matter more than wide receivers…When Seattle won their Superbowl, Marshawn Lynch was a top running back in the league…Who’s the last top wide receiver to win one?…
    ======

    The Steelers couldn’t cover anybody in XLV. They were fortunate they weren’t run out of the building by Nelson and Jennings. Had as much to do with Rodgers, but that WR corps tore it up.

    .. as for Seattle ‘running 3 strait times’, if Wilson makes a better throw, they win that game. If Kearse gets a better pick on his man, Seattle wins that game. If Belichick didn’t gameplan for that play based on the Seahawks tendenices, Seattle wins that game.

    It wasn’t the play call, it was the execution. (.. in more ways than one)

  12. You can say the same about Dalvin Cook, everyone is making out he’s going to be huge when he comes back, the Vikings ran the ball better after he was injured

  13. No defenses feared Bortles throwing to below average WRs so they stacked against the run

  14. Of the 13 games he played, he average 4.0 ypg or better in only 4 of those games. Not saying he isn’t a good RB, but those numbers are far from dominating.

  15. No one ever mentions how he disappeared in the second half vs. Patriots, but still find ways to blame Bortle.

    Fournette runs in 2nd half: 2, 1, 1, 3, 0, 7, 2, 14, 2, 1, 1, -1. Twelve carries for 33 yards and only one first down. Bortles gets yards and moves the chains with 8 first downs (and no help from the run game, as there were lots of 2nd-and-long situations.)

  16. This is such a bogus take. Of course with the rules that favor the passing game – Pass Interference, Illegal contact and the biggest game changer of all – the gloves the receiver wear (QB’s no longer have to be a touch passer – you can throw a fastball whether the reciever is 5 yards or 15 yards away).

    The running game is no longer depended on to be a game breaker but to discount it is silly.

    The top backs, nowadays, are there to move the chains – second and two, third and 1 and goal line.

    So called experts, who wouldn’t know how to put on a pair of shoulder pads, like to dismiss the running game. New England had Blount 2 years ago when they won the SB. He scored a bunch of TD’s and gained 1,000 yards and was a hammer. Where did NE have an issue this year? Short yardage.

    Blount gained about 700 yards with Philly this year and averaged about 4.5 yards per carry. He wasn’t there to be a game breaker. Just the dirty work

    Not saying SB’s follow Blount around but this type of runner – Blount, Lynch, CJ Anderson, Freeman and Coleman in Atlanta have all had a big hand in their teams reaching SB’s that last few years

  17. (By way of comparison, if you take out Le’Veon Bell‘s top two runs last year, his average drops only from 4.0 to 3.9 yards.)

    —-

    Le’Veon Bell’s longest run was 27 yards. So, what you’re saying is that Bell lacks playmaking ability and breakaway speed? (Funny how you can interpret stats to fit your needs).

  18. my_old_name_was_offensive says: “Ask Atlanta how important a running game is…All they had to do was run 3 straight times!

    Ask Seattle how important a running game is…All they had to do was run 3 straight times!”
    —————————

    Beast Mode Lynch was a PATHETIC 1-for-5 at goal line situations in 2015 and a career 4-for-13. Awesome against smaller LBs and DBs, but just sucks against goal line D. And no, which just one timeout left, they didn’t have time for 3 straight runs.

    Atlanta was even worse running the ball in the second half: -3, 5, 0, 9, -3, -1, 8, 1, 2, -1. Ten carries for 17 yards. Only Matt Ryan moved the chains and kept the clock running (17 for 20 at that point).

  19. Nothing like a hot take that is actually ice cold and full of stupid. The WP of Jax’s opponents in the three games without Fournette? 0.3125, and all losing records. The WP of Jax’s games with Fournette? 0.4615, with 7 of the 13 coming against teams with WINNING records. In other news, when Sean Lee was out for Dallas, the team’s defense gave up a good TD more than it did in games with Lee…and the opposing teams in games without Lee averaged almost a full TD more in their NON Dallas games than the teams Lee played against. The quality of the teams you play compared to the quality of the teams for missed games matters. Shocking, I know!

  20. CHURCHILL says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Fournette’s physical style of running allows the Jags to control the ball and dominate time of possession. When he is in, naturally they are going to score less because the idea is to control the ball and grind out yard after yard. When he is out, the offense opens up and allows more opportunities for quick-strike scoring. So to compare the scores of when he is in and when he is out is flawed. Fournette is an asset to this Jags team and has helped in changing their mentality and approach to a tough, hard-nose, punch-you-in-the-mouth style of play. Your analysis means jack-s.
    __________

    So your point is that the Jaguars will naturally score less when Fournette is in and will score more when he’s out? And this is a good thing?

  21. orangecrush78 says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:34 am

    He also missed games vs CLE, ARI and STL – two of those teams would have helped his numbers a lot; they were two of the weaker teams he would have played.

    sopadegato says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:42 am

    The three games without Fournette were the 0-16 Browns, the 4-12 Colts, and the 7-9 Bengals.
    ___________

    One guy says he missed games against CLE, ARI, and STL (they aren’t in the league anymore) and the other guy says he missed games against CLE, IND, and CIN.

    The games he missed were against IND, CIN, and HOU. At least the second guy was close. Not sure what season the first guy was watching.

  22. Since posters on here are too quick to write a comment and get it wrong, rather than doing a little HW and get it right. Let me set the record straight. The games he missed were as follows:

    Indy 27-0
    Cincy 23-7
    Hou 45-7

    He didn’t miss the Browns game, he didn’t miss the Rams game (obtw, they are in LA now, not StL) and he didn’t miss the Arizona game.

  23. Beast Mode Lynch was a PATHETIC 1-for-5 at goal line situations in 2015 and a career 4-for-13. Awesome against smaller LBs and DBs, but just sucks against goal line D. And no, which just one timeout left, they didn’t have time for 3 straight runs.

    Atlanta was even worse running the ball in the second half: -3, 5, 0, 9, -3, -1, 8, 1, 2, -1. Ten carries for 17 yards. Only Matt Ryan moved the chains and kept the clock running (17 for 20 at that point)
    _______________________________________

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this for years. New England STUFFED the run in both games. I doubt Lynch would have scored on one try. Seattle did not have TIME to run three times. And Atlanta’s run game would not have converted third downs in the second half.
    Everyone thinks they are SO much smarter than professional coaches… Hey, Monday morning quarterbacks– hindsight is (not so) 20/20!

  24. for fairness, Levon Bell has some of the best Oline in the NFL in front of him, a 2 time Superbowl QB, possibly the best WR in the league.

    Fournette had bortles who most people assumed would be replaced in the off season. a bad online.

    Fournette deserves a lot of credit for turning expectations of a franchise around.

  25. Fournette is no Zeke that’s for sure. In college, Nick Saban’s vaunted defense had no answer for Zeke in the playoffs but they were able to stop Fournette every time they faced him in the SEC. The Jaguars reached for him.

  26. In AFC Tirle game the Jags over-relied on Fournette to be the clock killer at the end. The Pats made adjustments, shut him down and were able to set up Brady and Dola to do their magic. I think if the Jags played a more aggressive offense, it could have been different. Anyway, it turned out well for the Patriots!

  27. The point is, wasting a draft pick that high on a RB probably isn’t worth it. When guys like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt are available in the middle rounds, the Top 10 picks should be reserved for impact positions (QBs, LTs, DEs).

  28. The writer of the article shows he looks at numbers, and that’s about it.

    Doesn’t seem the understanding that they were trying to build the running game, and as the numbers go… result in ball-control which is refreshingly old-school now. Look who’s in charge- Tom Coughlin 😉

    Anyhow, this is what readers get when bookworms try to overanalyze the game of football. Nonsense.

  29. The Titans swept the Jags last season.
    __________________________________________

    Cool story. I’d be more worried about how badly Mariota (he was brutal) played last year than about a Jags team that was a quarter away from the Super Bowl.

  30. While I can concede there is some truth here, I will note two things:

    Getting 1000+ yards behind that line is commendable. With Norwell added.. Lookout.

    I do not know that there is a RB in the league defensive backs want to tackle less. #businessdecision

  31. Rob Brzezinski is a Magician says:

    May 8, 2018 at 10:38 am

    CHURCHILL says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Fournette’s physical style of running allows the Jags to control the ball and dominate time of possession. When he is in, naturally they are going to score less because the idea is to control the ball and grind out yard after yard. When he is out, the offense opens up and allows more opportunities for quick-strike scoring. So to compare the scores of when he is in and when he is out is flawed. Fournette is an asset to this Jags team and has helped in changing their mentality and approach to a tough, hard-nose, punch-you-in-the-mouth style of play. Your analysis means jack-s.
    __________

    So your point is that the Jaguars will naturally score less when Fournette is in and will score more when he’s out? And this is a good thing?

    ________

    The point is the focus of the game plan becomes TIME OF POSSESSION

  32. This article looks at stats and reasons the viability of a player…a typical angle of reasoning from a guy who has never played the game at any level. Ask those teams that had to play the Jags ( and take out those three gimme games against teams with losing records ) and find out who they game planned against. Fournette is not just a legit runner in the NFL, he is a great locker room presence that raises the level of play of his teammates. Ask any player on the Jags roster if you’re skeptical about that assertion.

  33. Vincent Alongi says: “Anyhow, this is what readers get when bookworms try to overanalyze the game of football. Nonsense.”
    ———————

    No, it’s just watching Fournette’s game is kinda ‘meh’. Rookies like Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were a just as productive (or even better) than the fourth overall pick. Which was the point of the article – you don’t need to draft a RB that high.

  34. akira554 says:
    May 8, 2018 at 10:08 am
    No one ever mentions how he disappeared in the second half vs. Patriots, but still find ways to blame Bortle.

    Fournette runs in 2nd half: 2, 1, 1, 3, 0, 7, 2, 14, 2, 1, 1, -1.

    ———

    Yeah if your solid running back, that doesn’t have a good qb, is getting that kind of yardage. The odds are that the defense is gameplanning to stop him.

  35. Not one word up there about Blake Bortles.

    Fournette or Bortles.. which guy inspires fear when gameplanning??

    ——————————————————————————–

    Because his comparison was about RBs. When he quoted numbers WITHOUT fournette, Bortles was still there.
    This isn’t a qb vs rb debate.

  36. PFF proves you can make stats say anything you want.. just manipulate them… Tom Coughlin was the MVP of Jax last year. he brought toughness and professionalism to the sorry team… where does Florio get these guys they were probably in his brownie troop…..

  37. sopadegato says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:42 am

    The three games without Fournette were the 0-16 Browns, the 4-12 Colts, and the 7-9 Bengals.

    ———————————————————-

    You have a point here, except that the browns had the 7th best rush defence in the NFL last year. So it doesn’t make sense they’d run better against them without fournette.

  38. Don’t know that I’m completely convinced, but Fournette was involved in one of the strangest plays of the season. On the Jaguars final drive in the AFC championship game he made no effort at all on a very catchable ball thrown down the sideline by Bortles. It seemed like there was very little discussion of the play, but in looking at a replay the ball lands right at his feet and he never even puts his arms out for the ball. Sadly, that’s the play that sticks out in my mind from his season, of course.

  39. Beast Mode Lynch was a PATHETIC 1-for-5 at goal line situations in 2015 and a career 4-for-13.
    =====

    Typical ‘skew the numbers to fit what you want to believe’ argument.

    Less than 3 yards-to-go situations in 2015 – 18 conversions in 24 attempts

    4 to 6 yards to go in 2015 – 4 for 8, 4.9 yard average

    3rd/4th-and-short – 8 for 12, 6 yard average

    .. I don’t believe for certain Lynch would have scored if the Seahawks ran. I don’t think the decision to throw was a bad one, but I don’t like that specific playcall. (I think a Wilson run-pass option was a better call, given the Pats personnel)

    Lynch being a bad short-yardage back is absolute bunk.

    He was one of the toughest runners I’ve ever seen, and was a monster after contact.

  40. .. 2014, the year the Seahawks lost to the SB was MORE impressive

    Less than 3 yards-to-go situations – 32 of 47… 7 touchdowns.. so how could he be 1 for 5 in the redzone that year?

    4 to 6 yards-to-go – 17 for 25.. 3 touchdowns.. 1 for 5, huh?….

    Here’s the doozy.. prepare yourself… seriously..

    3rd/4th-and-short – EIGHTEEN out of twenty… NINETY percent!.. 3 touchdowns

    Yeah… Lynch was terrible.

    Looks like that 1 for 5 is fake news.

  41. Wow, the writer tried to keep it simple and to the facts. Fournette was not bad as a rookie, and showed great flashes… but when it came to why Jacksonville was so good last year, was because of the way their D played. Plain and simple. Not a knock against Fournette, he still has lots of value. Every team who plays the Jags prepares for all aspects of the game, but I’m sure the main focus is how to get past their D, not how to stop the run/pass. They are a Defensive minded team right now, that does not mean the Offence can take a nap, but the game plan is revolved around the D. Props for the turnaround season, as it showed they have lots of talent.

  42. Because his comparison was about RBs. When he quoted numbers WITHOUT fournette, Bortles was still there.
    This isn’t a qb vs rb debate.
    ======

    Sorry, the two are mutually exclusive, IMO.

    Similar with Scott Mitchell and Barry Sanders.

    What are you doing on defense there? You’re stopping Barry and waiting for an average QB to miss throws, or simply throw one to you.

  43. This article is a funny one, MDS. You must be one of those Eli-hating, Reese apologists, who want to give Getty a thinly veiled lesson in draft economics. Fine. Let’s say your argument about taking a running back so high is valid. Jax’s defense just needed another year to ascend eh? Well it had the last SIX to prove that it was legit, but here are the records for that wrold-destroying defense

    3-13 (I see what you did there MDS)
    5-11
    3-13
    4-12
    2-14
    5-11

    You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t buy into the idea that Fournette didn’t make a difference. BTW, he was hurt in the AFCC game and he still got 76 yrds. Where is the hue and cry about Bortles not getting it done. The real story is how one man and the person who drafted him would almost made it to the superbowl after going 3-13 the previous year. Think about it. They almost made even with a bust of a qb, but you’re right Fournette was a waste of a pick – lol.

  44. aarons444 says: “Typical ‘skew the numbers to fit what you want to believe’ argument.”
    —————————-

    Goal Line defense is not the same as “short yardage” situation. More specifically, you have extra DTs and/or DEs on the play. Those stats you threw out are against the typical base defense personnel on short yardage situations where the defense still needs to protect the rest of the field. On a goal line situation, it’s just a tight window of the line and the 10 yards of endzone.

    Which goes back to the main argument, Lynch was terrible against a specific type of defense at the goal line when he had to face 6 or 7 DTs/DEs.

  45. nard100 says: “Jax’s defense just needed another year to ascend eh? Well it had the last SIX to prove that it was legit, but here are the records for that wrold-destroying defense”
    —————————–

    Jag’s defense went from 25th to 2nd under Doug Marrone. Whereas Jag’s run game was averaging 4.2 yards/carry in 2016, it skyrocketed in 2017 to … 4.3 yards/carry!! What’s funny is that Fournette was averaging BELOW the team at 3.9 yds/carry.

  46. What a weird and either mean or pointless take. Understandable though, from a grown man with a job that still doesn’t understand how simple things like sports wagering work

  47. “Those people are wrong”. Talk about cherry picked data. 3 games without him is a tiny sample size first of all. Conclusions can hardly be drawn from it. It’s also very superficial analysis. In those 3 games what kind of run defenses did they face compared to the other 13 games? And did the boxes they face change? Were defenses loading the box for Chris ivory the way they were when facing Fournette? It’s your job to have an opinion, not to present it as fact based on poor data.

  48. CHURCHILL says:
    May 8, 2018 at 11:57 am
    Rob Brzezinski is a Magician says:

    May 8, 2018 at 10:38 am

    CHURCHILL says:
    May 8, 2018 at 9:33 am

    Fournette’s physical style of running allows the Jags to control the ball and dominate time of possession. When he is in, naturally they are going to score less because the idea is to control the ball and grind out yard after yard. When he is out, the offense opens up and allows more opportunities for quick-strike scoring. So to compare the scores of when he is in and when he is out is flawed. Fournette is an asset to this Jags team and has helped in changing their mentality and approach to a tough, hard-nose, punch-you-in-the-mouth style of play. Your analysis means jack-s.
    __________

    So your point is that the Jaguars will naturally score less when Fournette is in and will score more when he’s out? And this is a good thing?

    ________

    The point is the focus of the game plan becomes TIME OF POSSESSION
    ___________

    Time of possession is great, but I think I’d still rather score more points.

  49. 25 attempts for 109 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Pittsburg Steelers in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs…I’d say that is a pretty important contribution. Only played 13 games in regular season but still over 1000 yards (ran for over 100 in 6 of 13 games) with 10 touchdowns…They may have went 3-0 without him and 7-6 with him but could have easily gone 5-8/6-7 without him. He may not have had as good of a rookie season as Ezekiel Elliott, but was still productive by any standards.

  50. Does anyone measure something like “median yards per carry” instead of “average yards per carry”? I always suspected Blount had a high median YPC and that’s why Belichick liked him — leave manageable 3rd downs and pick up the 3rd and shorts. And I bet it could be true of a guy like Fournette too.

  51. tatatoothy ,

    Yep, that’s all I said. I was expecting an Adrian Peterson in his prime type of impact how he was talked up, and he didn’t do that. As noted, the other backs seemed to run about as well as he did as a committee. For the fourth pick in the draft with other players that were on the board, just saying that Jaguar fans might look back and wonder what else they could have taken if he continues being that pedestrian overall.

  52. 3.9 yards per carry is great if it’s consistent. I’ll take a guy who consistently gets 3.9 yards per carry and keeps the offense on schedule over a guy who gets one long carry and then a bunch of 1-yarders

  53. akira554 says:

    May 8, 2018 at 11:32 am

    The point is, wasting a draft pick that high on a RB probably isn’t worth it. When guys like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt are available in the middle rounds, the Top 10 picks should be reserved for impact positions (QBs, LTs, DEs).

    _______________________________________

    Kamara and Hunt didn’t have 8 man fronts like Fournette did.

  54. As is often the case many respond without understanding the point. He never said Fournette was a bad player or that there wasn’t a valid reason for his low YPC. It was a reasoned argument as to why drafting a RB high won’t have much of an effect on your win total and he’s right. RB is the lowest valued position in the NFL because they are easy to find and don’t impact the game to the level other positions do. Jax improved because of their defense and Bortles cutting down on TO’s. They had the same level of running game no matter who played. RB’s in the top ten are bad value.

  55. Jags made a good pick taking him. Better QB play will take some defensive focus on him when he’s in the game. You cant take his long runs away cuz he did them. He has the break away speed to take long runs to the house. Bell doesnt.

  56. Fair article. But I’m willing to bet Fournette saw more loaded boxes than most. And also was met in the backfield and still got positive yards a lot.
    The OL pass blocked well for Borts but run blocking still left a lot to be desired (hence the Norwell signing).
    But the point about RBs high stands… seeing as there are plenty of backs that are successful drafted later.

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