Jacksonville Jaguars 2017 NFL Draft: How Does Leonard Fournette Impact the Offense?

Sep 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) celebrates a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) celebrates a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

Leonard Fournette is a talented runner but he will have to become a more all-around professional to help the Jacksonville Jaguars offense.

The role of an NFL running back is about more than simply running the ball. Running backs are called upon for pass protection and for catching passes out of the backfield. Be able to do all three things make for premier players that are highly coveted by teams, even if they may not be record-setting runners.

Leonard Fournette is about to learn that with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Selected fourth overall, a lot of attention has been placed on Fournette as a player that the Jaguars can use to balance the offense and take pressure off struggling quarterback Blake Bortles. Theoretically, a better ground game forces defenses to put more players in the box to defend the run, opens up play action passes, and allows the offense to eat up more clock.

All of those things should be good for the Jaguars. But the biggest thing that may help the offense is cutting down on opportunities for Blake Bortles to throw interceptions and pick-sixes. Since entering the league in 2014, Bortles has thrown 1706 pass attempts (seventh most in the NFL). It is a situation that has been forced on him from playing behind and from the running game’s inability to gain momentum.

While Bortles has to fix his own mechanics and decision making to be a better passer – and Fournette’s presence can’t magically improve the quarterback – Fournette can help the offense on the whole.

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Immediately following the draft, it looks like that will primarily be through running the ball on first or second down. As outlined by Pro Football Focus, Fournette has not been asked to be a consistent receiving threat on third downs or to stay in for pass protection often (his career at LSU had just 105 pass protection snaps compared to 100 for Jags running back T.J. Yeldon in 2016 alone, per PFF). Those were both legitimate concerns for analysts and teams in evaluating Fournette in the draft process.

Assuming the Jaguars ease Leonard Fournette into a more balanced role as time goes on, he could slowly develop from a first and second down back into a player who can stay on the field as a three-down back. This will entail pass protection duties and catching passes out of the backfield as well as some short-yardage work when called upon.

With just 41 receptions in college, there is a limited sample size from which to glean insight on Fournette’s actual receiving ability. Fournette’s receiving drills during LSU’s Pro Day could put some concerns aside, at least indicating he doesn’t have stone hands.

The bigger concern is whether or not Fournette can adequately block in the passing game. With running backs increasingly relied upon as pass protectors in passing situations (often from the shotgun), Fournette must prove he can succeed in that role if he wants to stay on the field. In the past, few running backs have been successful as runners and in pass protection. Former Jags superstar Maurice Jones-Drew was one of the most dynamic pass protectors and runners during his time with the team.

With these concerns outlined immediately and understood by the coaching staff, expect the Jags to take some baby steps with Fournette in his first season. Unless he immediately excels, the Jaguars will be working with limited information from his playing days on the more nuanced parts of the position. Emily Kaplan, writing for MMQB, covered this well in evaluating Fournette prior to the 2016 season:

"Evaluating running backs as pass blockers is tricky. Few teams will spend a high pick on a running back who can’t stay on the field on passing downs. Yet many college systems are basic in protection schemes and don’t ask the primary ball-carriers to do a lot of pass protection. Explains one high-ranking NFL front office evaluator: “We always look at the pass protection aspect pretty closely, but we also give most players the benefit of the doubt due to the type of system they had in college.”"

Fournette isn’t necessarily bad as a pass blocker or as a receiver (though PFF’s measurements suggest he is better at the former) but he does have to improve. Going from a dominant running back in the college ranks to the professional level will require making seamless transitions from running downs to passing downs.

In the end, however, if Leonard Fournette is anything like Adrian Peterson (a frequent comparison), he will be on the field more often than not. His presence and ability to be productive anytime he touches the ball will force defenses to account for him. Just like Peterson (who is neither the best receiving back or pass-protecting back), Fournette is enough of a threat to warrant a spot on the field even when he isn’t used ideally.

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But Fournette is just one piece. The offensive line and the quarterback must step up, too. Hopefully we see a movement forward in concert as the new running back helps lift all boats and can build on a solid foundation developing with the receiving corps and some parts of the offensive line.