What Smart Fantasy Football Players Should Do With Leonard Fournette
I would not be surprised if you clicked this article and expected for the advice to be simple on Leonard Fournette: FADE. If that is the mindset you have with Fournette, I get it. As I was thinking about fantasy football in 2020, I realized, however, that the question of Fournette is not that easily answerable. While he scored only three touchdowns in 2019, he was a clear RB1 in PPR formats with 76 targets and did so with exceedingly bad QB play.
Fournette recorded 19 or more carries six times, six or more targets THIRTEEN times, and played over 70% of the Jaguars snaps in every game. Was he good on those touches? This is, of course, where the wrinkles come. Fournette ranked 39th in Football Outsiders’ success rate and 34th in defense-adjusted yards above average.
Pro Football Focus graded him as their 76th-highest-rated rusher. He did, however, generate 3.34 yards after contact on average. His “Elusive Rating” was higher than you would expect as well but that particular metric has almost no correlation to skill or stickiness year over year.
So this is where we are with Fournette, post-2019. He was a true workhorse, recording the third-most touches in the NFL. He also wasn’t very “good”, whatever that means (though we know that the idea of talent at running back can be pretty misleading). Fournette scored only three touchdowns on a team that scored only 27 total on offense. He was used a good chunk in goal-to-go situations (23 carries + two targets), he just was either “unlucky” or “bad”.
Obviously, any running back that secures such a massive share of their backfield is going to have value. The worry about Fournette in the 2019 preseason was his efficiency (career YPC under 4) and his role in the passing game. Nothing is really more important for fantasy running backs in 2020 than their role as a pass catcher.
One of the most instructive ways to analyze the future of players is to run “similarity scores” and find players that performed similarly and then see what they did the next season. I tried to run a hyper-specific Pro Football Reference query to find very similar seasons from the last 20 years to Fournette’s 2019. These were the terms of the search: For single seasons, from 1990 to 2019, from 1st to 5th season, age 25 or younger, played RB, requiring Targets >= 60 and Yds From Scrimmage <= 1700 and Touchdowns <= 5 and Rushing Att >= 250
So, I was not expecting Hall-Of-Famer Edgerrin James or former RB1 Matt Forte to ever show up on a comparable list to Fournette but that is why we run the tests. Now, could this data set be wider? Of course. Limiting by touchdowns likely induces some variance into the results because what if Fournette had scored at a league-average rate? Than his comps would change.
What I am more interested in though, is if we can expect (on average) Fournette’s role to stay the same in the passing game.
James’ 2003 N+1 season saw him see a slight dip in targets but scored 11 touchdowns and had over 1,500 scrimmage yards. Forte’s N+1 season was one of the best of his career with 51 receptions and nine touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Curtis Enis’ 2000 was his final year in football and he recorded only 44 touches while, hysterically, the next comp on the list (James Allen) recorded 290 carries and 60 targets. Allen went on to have a super disappointing 2001 season on a bad Bears team and was benched for Anthony Thomas.
So what can we learn from this extremely wide range of outcomes? We have legit hall of famers and guys who are not even in the footnotes of NFL history in the same breath. Going into this thought experiment, I was sort of imagining that I would find reasons to want to short Leonard Fournette in 2020. I do not think you can make that decision super lightly, though.
With his (unsuccessful) goal-to-go touches and usage in the passing game, Fournette is no longer a TRAP running back. We would never put him in the true top tier of running backs with CMC, Zeke and Alvin Kamara but his usage mirrors those sorts of high-value runners. We can of course grant that the range of outcomes for Fournette is much wider than the other RB’s who had similar touch numbers to him next year.
The Jaguars might decide that Ryquell Armstead is ready to play passing downs. They could draft another running back who earns 1/3rd of the backfield work and takes Fournette’s snap share down from averaging over 80% to around 70%. These small changes would push Fournette back into a much more volatile weekly start who is mostly reliant on touchdown luck to be a good fantasy starter.
So What Will Smart Fantasy Players Do With Leonard Fournette?
As in the answer with most smart players, they will be cost-sensitive. Fournette is going to be far too cheap in dynasty leagues given the season he just came off of. What if the Jaguars luck into another good defensive year? What if Fournette scores an average number of touchdowns for his total yardage gained? These are just a few ways his range of outcomes can spike up. His worst-case scenarios are mostly injury-related (this was a big concern with him before the beginning of 2019) or the Jaguars bringing in a complement to him in the backfield.
As long as we have reason to believe Fournette’s role in the passing game will stay the same (and I can’t believe I am saying this), Fournette is probably a little undervalued. If we can all have the brazenness to say “running backs don’t matter” than we have to accept that if the Jaguars team context just gets a little better, Fournette will have an easier time around the goalline in 2020.