I’m going to put it bluntly: The Bucs just took on a big risk with their addition of Leonard Fournette.
It’s not so much about what he does on the field (which we’ll get to in a bit), but more about what has happened off of it. Trouble has followed Fournette since he entered the league, which is one of the primary causes of his recent release.
“Fournette presents some challenges because it’s not the production — he’s a good player, he will have a market — his talks will intensify in the coming days leading up to the draft,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler said back in April. “But there are some character concerns. He’s had some issues with coaches there in Jacksonville. So I’m told, from people who have worked with him, if you go into a new locker room, there could be some problems, potentially.”
The concerns go all the way back to his rookie year, where he was declared inactive one week for missing a team photo as well as a workout/treatment appointment for an ankle injury that kept him out of a game earlier in the season. He was suspended for punching a player, arrested for traffic violations, and out of shape (which may have contributed to a hamstring injury that caused him to miss six games) the following year. He even told a fan that “I will beat your a—” after a game.
There’s even a belief that some of his own teammates wanted him out of Jacksonville and helped with his release.
None of this means the guy is a hopeless cause. People also deserve second chances, but what’s disturbing here is that there is a pattern of bad decisions and bad behavior. There’s a big chance that this could lead to more/bigger issues down the road.
A lot of people are pointing to the fact that Fournette played in Jacksonville, which sounds like it would drive any player up the wall. At the same time, Tom Coughlin was around the program for the entirety of Fournette’s time in Jacksonville and he is well-known as a disciplinarian and as someone who doesn’t take crap from players. Yet, Fournette still found his way into mischief under Coughlin’s watch.
Maybe that’s because Coughlin was too strict, but it could also mean that Fournette just doesn’t really care. Either way, you have to wonder how he will gel under another doesn’t-take-crap coach in Bruce Arians.
The Bucs aren’t really known for providing the best culture, either. This was a major talking point toward the end of Dirk Koetter’s time as head coach and we know that Arians is trying to build a winning culture in Tampa Bay. But if we’re basing culture off wins, then the Jags actually have a better record (21-27) than the Bucs (17-31) since 2017. Fournette’s presence could be an obstacle in building this culture.
And there’s no guarantee Fournette will correct his issues. You don’t have to look too far for an example, either. Adam “Pacman” Jones is a perfect case study for how changing one’s environment doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll change their behavior.
Before I dive into this, let me say that I know Fournette’s past issues are nowhere near the same as Jones’. Jones did some messed up stuff and was actually suspended for an entire year before the Titans traded him to the Cowboys. While Fournette has shown a pattern of bad decisions, I’m not comparing him as a person to Jones. This is more in line with how a history of bad decisions can lead to more bad decisions regardless of the surrounding environment.
The Cowboys were two years removed from Bill Parcells’ tenure and were coming off a 13-3 season as well as two straight playoff appearances when Jones arrived in Dallas in 2008. They had a winning culture, but it didn’t prevent Pacman from acting up. He was suspended for four games in October of that year for an altercation with a bodyguard in a Dallas hotel. His career lasted one year in Dallas before he was released.
To be fair, Wade Phillips - the Cowboys’ coach - did have a reputation as being soft in Dallas, and you have to wonder how much that played into Pacman’s issues, but as I mentioned earlier, Fournette still found his way into trouble under the discipline-oriented Coughlin.
I’m sure there are plenty of examples of players with histories who went on to do good things for other teams, but I can’t think of any examples right now. Sorry for the blank, but I want to present this topic as fairly as I can, so it at least requires a mention.
What drives all of this is the fact that Fournette isn’t really that great on the football field. What will the Bucs really get out of Fournette in 2020 that will offset the risk they take?
Sure, he can catch the ball. He caught 76 of them last year. But if you look past the surface numbers, you’ll see that he wasn’t very efficient when he had the ball in his hands. Per Sports Info Solutions, Fournette averaged (-.013) EPA/target on 100 targets —which was the fourth-most targets among running backs— in 2019. His total EPA of (-13.4) ranked 117th out of 120 running back candidates. He had a 5.9% drop rate which was twice as high as Ronald Jones II (3.0%), the Bucs’ current “starter”.
Side note: And speaking of Jones, what message does this send to the third-year back who has absolutely worked his tail off to get his shot as “the guy”?
I haven’t watched enough of Fournette to give you honest analysis on his ability in pass protection, but he has a decent reputation in that regard. However, Pro Football Focus has given him a pass pro grade of 38.0, 37.4, and 33.6 over his three years in the league. PFF’s grading system is certainly up for debate, but what’s alarming here is that he is trending downward. That’s not good no matter how you cut it.
His career average of 4.0 yards per carry isn’t really anything to get excited about and he also had a really bad 2018 season. There’s no way to tell which Fournette you’re really getting. That’s not what you want out of a No. 4 overall draft pick and it’s the reason why Jacksonville didn’t even give him the chance to finish out his rookie deal.
The move also magnifies the amount of assets the Bucs have put in the running back position. Two draft picks and now $4.5 million (that includes LeSean McCoy’s salary) is quite the investment for a team that has plenty of depth questions. The Bucs were already playing with fire when they signed Rob Gronkowski and paid him $10 million. Now, they’re sinking potentially $3.5 million into Fournette. That $12-$13.5 million could’ve gone a long way to answering the depth questions at quarterback, receiver, defensive line, EDGE, cornerback, and safety. It’s hard to argue that running back is a priority over any of those positions.
Only time will tell how this move shakes out. If it works, then the Bucs have added a good depth piece and a guy who should be able to contribute and even take over as the lead back in case Jones gets hurt or doesn’t take the next step in his development. But if it doesn’t work, it will certainly be a move that hampers the team more than it helps in the long run.