Name: Leonard Fournette
Position: Running Back
School: Louisiana State
Games Watched: 2015: vs Auburn, vs Syracuse; 2016: vs Ole Miss, vs Arkansas
Overview: Being labelled “the next Adrian Peterson” is never going to be easy for any player. But. New Orleans native Fournette was a two-time High School All-American (2012 and 2013). He was rated the #1 prospect in the nation. Topped 1,000 yards in his freshman season, but wowed all and sundry in his 2015 sophomore season. Ending the year with 1,953 yards at 6.4 ypc, Fournette finished 6th in Heisman voting, being a consensus All-American and making 1st team SEC. Hampered by ankle injuries in 2016, Fournette still rushed for 6.5ypc and made 2nd team SEC.
You might have heard that Fournette’s a physical running back? Well, he’s all that and more. He can use his strength and balance to charge through linemen(!) and make holes where blocks are weaker. When he’s through, woe betide any defensive back without strong tackling technique. Fournette shakes them off like you would pool noodles. He’ll also barge into them, intimidating them, though while that works at college level, I can’t see Kam Chancellor being cowed.
Of course, if he was just a brute he’d be a late round pick. Fournette is blessed with rare speed for someone so humungous. He ran at 4.51 at the combine – that’s not lightning fast, but running backs don’t need to be. He ran that looking…well, not as trim as one might expect, too! An NFL team that can keep Fournette’s weight under control (not that it isn’t) will reap rewards. He’ll only get a touch quicker, and won’t really lose that power. Case in point? He shed 12 pounds in a month between the Combine and his Pro Day, and looked lean and mean.
He has vision. Being able to make holes bigger with power is useful, but you need to spot the exploitable hole in the first place. This showed up so often in the Auburn game, where he was first spotting the holes, and then spotting the directions to go downfield. Thus far, he’s been able to find the only hole, so turn a tricky gain into a good gain and then pick the best route downfield.
Fournette’s got the sort of agility and wriggle you don’t expect in a big man. He can make himself skinny to get through a gap, or to just twitch himself away from a tackler. That’s going to be important. If his game gets less physical, he’s shown the kind of…manoeuvrability to break tackles intelligently.
Oh, and as you’d expect, he’s a solid blocker. I was particularly pleased by the 2016 Arkansas game, where he was obviously hobbled, but still committing as a blocker. The best bit? They’re not all just brute force blocks. Fournette takes the angle, conserving power and forcing the rusher to adjust. This makes the block easier and, again, less of a physical risk.
So, here’s the thing with first-round picks. You’ve got them guaranteed, under a cheap contract, for five years minimum. Running back is a position incredibly at risk of physical decline. You need to be as sure as you can that your back is going to be top-drawer for five years if you want one in the first round.
Injuries happen, but Fournette’s physical running style and struggles with a lingering ankle injury in 2016 will worry teams. They’ll see him being more at risk of injury because of the things that make him so good. Fournette barges through players to gain chunks of yardage. It’s brilliant. But there’s just that tiny risk with every extra collision to a shoulder, knee, or hip.
One practical thing Fournette can do is: go out of bounds more. In the 2015 Syracuse game, I saw him barging someone on the sideline just before he staggers out of bounds. Dude. Step out of bounds. You’ve gained 25 yards early in the 2nd quarter. Don’t try and gain 28 and put yourself that much more at risk. Of course, the risk of this is that you take away what makes Fournette special. But there is more to him than just being a bulldozer!
As always, there’s a few things Fournette can improve on. He was a better pass-catcher in 2016 than 2015. But he’s still less smooth and with shakier hands than, say, Cook or McCaffrey. Another symptom of his relentless physicality is refusing to know when to take the loss. That’ll lead to him getting some yards from nowhere, sure. Sometimes though, he’s going to back out, go round, and lose 7 yards rather than 1.
Here’s the deal with Leonard Fournette. His 2015 tape is pretty much as good as running back tape can be. His 2016 tape is still very good, but not as good, primarily because of niggling ankle injuries. He’s a punishing, physical runner, and this is where it becomes so much of a problem. The one position you worry about wear and tear the most is at running back. The style of running back you worry about wear and tear with the most is that physical, rough style. Where a player isn’t even in the draft and has already been slowed a touch by injury, that can be scary.
Based on his 2015 tape, Fournette is comfortably a top-3 player in the draft. It’s not just the effective physicality, but the speed, the cutting, the vision, the balance, the agility, the strength when breaking tackles. Yes he benefited from a good line, and yes there’ll be less space in the NFL, but he has the mental and physical traits you dream of in a running back. 2016 was similar, but less so. If that were his best season, he’d be a mid-to-late first round pick.
So, the quandary. Do you trust Fournette will be back to his 2015 best in future? Neutrals everywhere will hope so. Or do you worry that he’s already starting to be slowed down, and that’ll only continue? Teams will talk to him, his coaches, their medical staff, and probably still come to the wrong conclusion. But he’s still young. Let’s err slightly on the side of optimism here, shall we?
Grade: Top-10 pick.