On Friday afternoon, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded a fifth-round pick to the Browns in exchange for running back Carlos Hyde. He will share time with TJ Yeldon until Leonard Fournette returns, a time which is yet to be determined. The Hyde trade shows that Jacksonville either believes their 2017 first round pick will be out for a long period of time or is concerned that Fournette will inevitably suffer another injury after his eventual return.
Looking at Fournette’s career so far, due to various reasons, taking him so high in the first round looks questionable at best. It is becoming more and more difficult to defend the Jaguars’ top-five draft selection of Leonard Fournette.
Running backs have lost some value as the league has continued to shift towards passing. In addition, teams can find running backs later in the draft and develop them. However, most people considered Leonard Fournette a reasonable choice at number four overall because he seemed reliable as the offense’s centerpiece.
One thing that was overlooked was Leonard Fournette’s string of injuries during his senior season at LSU. The running back suffered a high-ankle sprain and aggravated it three times, missing six games over the course of the season. In addition, a knee bruise forced him to miss one additional game.
Jacksonville drafted Fournette hoping that injuries wouldn’t affect his production in the NFL. However, they have done exactly the opposite. Fournette suffered three injuries over the course of the 2017 season, including a preseason foot injury after someone stepped on him. Although an ankle sprain and quad bruise only caused him to miss two games, he did play hurt. As 2017 went on, the running back’s injury concerns became real.
Since Fournette’s powerful runs helped break down defenses and controlled the flow of the offense, Jacksonville thought they had hit on a draft pick. They made it all the way to the AFC Championship last year with Fournette as the main offensive weapon. With a great defense and a powerful back to lead the offense, Jacksonville hoped to take the next step this season.
But the injury gods had other plans. Fournette already has suffered multiple injuries and has only played in two games total. After hurting his hamstring in week 1, he came back in week 4 immediately aggravated it again. Now, Jacksonville is hesitant to bring Fournette back until he is completely healthy so as to avoid re-aggravating it.
At this point, Fournette can be labeled an injury-prone running back. Over the last three years, the Jags running back has endured an injury or aggravation on nine separate occasions. Reliability was the biggest reason the Jaguars drafted Fournette. While he may be reliable when on the field, a player cannot be considered reliable if he can’t stay healthy.
Old-style Running Back
Leonard Fournette is a classic running back, with power between the tackles and tackle-breaking ability. Last season, Fournette was solid for the Jaguars with over 1,000 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games. More importantly, he was the heartbeat of the offense and helped open up the passing game for Blake Bortles. In the playoffs, Fournette had a great game against Pittsburgh with three touchdowns and 109 yards.
The problem with Fournette’s production on the field is that he plays like an old-style running back in this new-age era. He only had 3.9 yards per carry last year, which dropped to 3.5 YPC in the playoffs. This is alright because he pushes through for tough yards, such as on 3rd-and-short or at the goal-line. However, his 3.9 yards per carry was tied for 22nd among running backs with at least 150 carries. Among those with at least 200 carries, he was still only tied for 13th.
Maybe Leonard Fournette’s YPC can be overlooked due to a knack for getting tough yards and an average-at-best offensive line. What he lacks compared to most current running backs, though, is explosive pass-catching ability. Fournette is not known for being a pass-catcher at all. Last year caught 36 catches for just over 300 yards and one touchdown. While this seems solid for a running back, he actually ranked 22nd in receptions and 21st in receiving yards among running backs. Fournette’s catching ability (or lack thereof) certainly does not make up for his low yards per attempt.
Stacked 2017 RB Class
Leonard Fournette was the fourth player picked in the 2017 NFL Draft. He may not even be the fourth best player at his own position from that draft class. Usually, there are one or two good running backs found in the mid to late rounds of a draft. In 2017, though, there were a lot more.
Kamara and Hunt
At this point, very few would argue with the notion that Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt are better than Fournette. Third and fourth round picks respectively, the two had great rookie seasons. Chiefs’ running back Hunt took over at the beginning of 2017 after Spencer Ware’s injury. He simply led the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards on nearly 4.9 yards per carry. Kamara became a big factor for the Saints in Week 4 and ended up winning the offensive rookie of the year award; he had 728 rushing yards on an NFL-leading 6.1 yards per carry and 82 catches for 826 yards. Neither has slowed down in their second season.
The only other one from the first round that year, Christian McCaffery, is the ultimate dual-threat back. As a rookie, he was mostly a pass-catcher and had 80 catches for 651 yards with five touchdowns. Now, McCaffery, having taken workhorse duties, looks explosive out of the backfield, but still plays slot receiver at times. The Panthers running back is on pace for over 1100 yards rushing on nearly five YPC and over 700 receiving yards. It’s not a stretch to say the Jaguars should have taken him instead of Fournette at number four overall.
Mixon, Connor, Cook
In addition, a few other running backs have solid arguments over Leonard Fournette. Cincinnati Bengals’ lead man Joe Mixon and Steelers’ James Connor only became starters this year, but already look at least as good as Fournette. Mixon is quick and explosive while Connor is strong, shifty and good at finding holes. They are both also threats catching balls out of the backfield. Finally, Dalvin Cook has injury concerns of his own, but he, like the others, is a multi-dimensional option. At the least, Jacksonville could have taken him in the second round and used their first-round choice on someone besides Fournette.
Jags Made a Mistake
At the end of the day, the Jaguars made a mistake by drafting Leonard Fournette. There was an unusual number of running backs in his draft that have become good players. He would even have been worth the selection if he could stay on the field and be the core of Jacksonville’s offense. However, injury issues combined with his old-style of playing the position make Fournette a disappointing decision as a top five overall selection.