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FAB 1. Fournette A Big Weapon For Tampa Bay
The signing of former Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette by Tampa Bay is kind of a big deal.
The reason I say kind of a big deal – rather than a really big deal – is because of the role Fournette is going to play for the Buccaneers, which is second fiddle behind starter Ronald Jones II initially.
Maybe even third fiddle behind Jones and LeSean McCoy.
Fournette is going to be a role player in Bruce Arians’ offense and an insurance policy at a position that gets a lot of wear and tear during the season. Arians even said as much in Thursday’s press conference.
“That’s one position I don’t think you can have enough good guys,” Arians said. “That’s the one area where nicks and bruises really add up and when you can get a player of that caliber – I’ve gotten great reviews from people that know him and have coached him. He’ll fit right in and then we’ll see what role happens and how fast it can happen. RoJo is our guy, Shady is ready for his role, so it’s just going to be building roles as we go along and having enough quality players to finish this thing.”
Yet there is a “big deal” element to the Bucs’ acquisition of Fournette, who was waived by the team that drafted in the first round in 2017 due to his character issues and the fact that Jacksonville preferred other backs on the roster.
Fournette was a Heisman Trophy contender at LSU in 2016 after rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore before injuries limited him to just seven games as a junior. In college he was being compared to the likes of Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson.
He was the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft after running a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash at 228 pounds. Fournette’s 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship Game during his rookie season before Tom Brady’s fourth quarter comeback sealed Jacksonville’s fate in New England.
The football analytics community has attempted to diminish Fournette’s productivity by pointing out the supposed “inefficiency of his runs and receptions” last year, but he still totaled 1,152 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and catching 76 passes for 522 yards.
Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: Getty Images
Yet that’s still 1,674 yards of total offense, which ranked sixth in the league in 2019 behind Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (2,392), Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,777), Cleveland running back Nick Chubb (1,772), Tennessee running back Derrick Henry (1,746) and New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas (1,716).
I’m betting Fournette could be a hell of a lot more efficient in Tampa Bay with Tom Brady handing off to him rather than Blake Bortles, Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew II in a Bucs offense that features Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and O.J. Howard instead of D.J. Chark, Chris Conley, Dede Westbrook and James O’Shaughnessy in Jacksonville. The Bucs are betting on that, too.
There are mixed opinions on Fournette’s ability to pass protect with Pro Football Focus and PewterReport.com’s Jon Ledyard not enthralled with Fournette in that area, but ESPN NFL reporter Ed Werder and Arians reporting that Fournette is okay in that area.
“He was not bad at all [in pass protection],” Arians said. “He’s more than willing and he’s a big, strong guy.”
One defensive coach evaluating #Bucs signing Leonard Fournette made the point he’s a quality pass protector at running back, something Tampa Bay lacked. Line one for Bruce Arians is protecting Tom Brady, in his age-43 season.
Fournette is more experienced than Jones in the passing game with 134 career receptions for 1,009 yards and two touchdowns compared to Jones’ 38 career catches for 309 yards, and he joins LeSean McCoy as a back that can be a factor on third down.
I think Fournette’s role begins there. As Fournette learns Arians’ playbook he’ll begin to see more time on first and second downs, coming in as a relief back to spell Jones.
“It’s going to affect somebody, that’s for sure,” Arians said. “His skillset is very rounded. He’s a three-down player, so he fits right into the rest of the group. He added some outstanding depth at a position that’s okay.”
Bucs RB Leonard Fournette – Photo by: Getty Images
As one Bucs official told me on Thursday, the team likes Fournette’s “size, power and explosiveness.” He’s a violent runner, and an ideal fit for the between-the-tackles running game that Arians deploys. Fournette is a north-south banger with the speed to break off long runs if he hits the open field past the second level.
The LSU product had seven runs of 20 yards or more in 2019, including three beyond 60 yards. As a rookie in 2017, Fournette had five runs of 20 yards or more, including two beyond 70 yards, which shows that when he’s healthy he can be a big-play generator if he can run to daylight and get beyond the line of scrimmage.
For now, Fournette is another weapon in Tampa Bay’s arsenal, and he bolsters a Bucs’ backfield that needed another experienced runner before his arrival. Had something happened to Jones then the 32-year old McCoy would have become the starting running back and Dare Ogunbowale, the team’s third-down back who was released Friday morning, would have been the backup runner.
That wasn’t ideal, and now that problem has been solved thanks to general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg convincing Fournette to sign with Tampa Bay rather than New England.
It will be interesting to see how productive Jones can be in his first season as a true starter. It took Jones half the year to wrestle that title away from Peyton Barber and he wound up leading the Bucs with 724 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Now he’ll have Fournette, who is on a one-year, prove-it deal worth $2 million with incentives that could push the total to $3.5 million, nipping at his heels all year as competition.
In Thursday’s press conference, Arians didn’t say Fournette would be competition for Jones – at least right out of the gate.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“No, it’s his job,” Arians said. “Nothing has changed for [Jones]. We’ve just added a heck of a piece of insurance to see what kind of role he can cut out. RoJo – it’s his job if he wins it or loses it. He’s already got it, so he’d have to screw it up. I don’t see that happening.”
I’m not ready to write Jones off by any means, but I’ve seen this happen before – and not just last year with Barber and Jones. Cadillac Williams was the incumbent running back at the start of the 2010 season when Tampa Bay acquired LeGarrette Blount, but Blount wound up starting the final seven games of the season and rushed for 1,007 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per carry to lead the team.
So Fournette’s role right now will be one more weapon for Brady to use, and an insurance policy at the running back. But expect the 25-year old LSU product to also compete head-to-head with Jones fairly soon and either push him towards greatness or push him to the bench this year.
“I think right away,” Arians said, when asked how quickly Fournette could be assimilated into Tampa Bay’s offense. “He’s a very bright player and everything I’ve heard from the guys coaching him – he’ll pick it up really quick. We’re not going to force him – we don’t have to force him. We’ll just let him get in his pace and if I know him, he’ll be pretty fast-paced. We’ll try to get him up to speed as fast as we can and see if he can have a role for next week.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing