If the Jacksonville Jaguars draft running back Leonard Fournette they are betting on his skills to fix the ground game.
As supremely talented as LSU running back Leonard Fournette appears to be, he’s ultimately a gamble. He is a gamble that many teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, are willing to take because his skills could translate well to an NFL offense.
Most teams when looking at Fournette are seeing with the added rose-tinted glasses brought on by Ezekiel Elliott‘s massive rookie campaign for the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. Elliott’s league-leading 1633 yards and impressive 15 touchdowns have made teams believe again in the first-round running back as a valid selection.
Ron Rivera, head coach of the Carolina Panthers, will be heading to LSU’s Pro Day to watch Fournette. He recently mentioned that no spot is “too high” for a running back (per Ian Rapoport). Rivera, like other NFL head coaches and personnel men, are riding a wave off Elliott’s groundbreaking performance and Todd Gurley‘s impressive rookie run the year before.
But that doesn’t mean it is always the right selection in every situation.
If the Jaguars opt to select Fournette with the fourth overall selection, the team is effectively better on his skills to fix a ground game that hasn’t done well in recent years. Chris Ivory, hot off a 2015 Pro Bowl, looked poor for the Jaguars in 2016. T.J. Yeldon regressed after a 2015 rookie campaign that showed promise. Both players struggled not because of their ability but because of the overall offensive productivity.
Running behind a mediocre offensive line, Jags running backs struggled to deliver in 2016. Even with a bruising style like that of Ivory, the Jags made little headway by pounding it repeatedly. The run game quickly became an afterthought in some games as the inability to control the clock and create a diverse offense effectively put the game in quarterback Blake Bortles‘ hands.
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The same situation may well apply in 2017. Without significant upgrades on the offensive line (left tackle Branden Albert is new, though) and a noticeable lack of addressing the left guard position may be setting any running back up for failure. If it didn’t work in 2016 and there was little done to change it, why should the situation improve?
Relying on a rookie running back’s ability to completely revamp the ground game may not be the right fit. “No matter how many times you get the ball, just make the best opportunity out of it,” Fournette told USA Today. In some situations, that best opportunity may only be a handful of yards. For some parts of last season, Ivory couldn’t even get as much as three (he averaged less than two yards per carry in four of his 11 games).
While it is great to have big expectations for a player like Fournette, it’s unfair to put him in a situation that is set up to fail. The Jags may yet solve some offensive line issues in the 2017 NFL Draft, but that is unclear at this point as there are plenty of other problems to address. So, while it’s nice to suggest Fournette solves all ills for the running game, it’s important to address that it is more nuanced than just getting the right running back to line up behind Bortles.
This is something that is rarely addressed in most mock drafts. For example, Gary Davenport’s Bleacher Report recent mock giving the Jags Fournette concludes with “If you want to make a real change, sometimes you have to go big or go home. And at running back in 2017, they don’t come any bigger than Fournette.”
If only it were that easy.