This article is the third installment of a series in which I use my Observational Rushing Numbers to shed light on just how good the 2017 rookie running backs were at carrying the ball. You can find each previous article about these numbers on the series’s hub, including similar articles about Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon.
Leonard Fournette entered the summer of 2017 as the dynasty community’s clear favorite running back and a close second-overall to Corey Davis. Fast forward a year, and it’s hard for Fournette owners to complain about what he’s done in Jacksonville. With the help of some incredible volume, Fournette topped 1,300 yards in just 13 games during his rookie campaign, and as a result, he sits comfortably in the middle of the second round of DLF’s startup ADP.
There is some cause for concern though. It will be hard (i.e. nearly impossible) for him to sustain such high volume in the long run. And if that volume drops off more than expected, he’ll need rushing efficiency to make up for it — better efficiency than 3.9 rushing yards per carry, certainly.
Today, I’ll be looking into how and why he churned out that mediocre clip, and how that might change in the future, with the help of my Observational Rushing Numbers.
(I’ve taken these tracking stats from weeks 1-14 for each rookie running back with at least 75 carries. If you’re wondering what any of the stats mean in a fuller sense, check the series glossary.)
At a glance
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Four Big Stats and Class Radar
At a broad level, Fournette was a surprisingly typical back. He was best at generating yardage in the open field (what HGY/C measures), but that was merely good when compared to the rest of the class; he was worst at generating yardage in the open field (what SGY/C measures), but that was merely not-great when compared to the rest of the class.
However, I’m hesitant to conclude that he wasn’t as good as advertised (nor that he was as good as advertised) with a simple glance. First, he faced quite a tough slate: The defenses he ran against in games I tracked averaged Rushing DVOA rankings of 12, the most difficult set of rushing fronts of any back I tracked. Second, because they’re just settling into NFL life, rookies often don’t play up to their potential. I touched on this when writing about Christian McCaffrey, who saw his Identification Rate (ID Rate — how often a back correctly finds a hole, which effectively measures vision) rise from awful to pretty-good within the NFL season. His adjustment period was about half of the NFL season.
As you can see in his class ranking radar, Fournette’s 92.9% ID Rate was among the class’s worst marks. For Fournette, the case might be that his adjustment period was an entire NFL season. The impact? His success rate was merely average despite hitting identified holes (what Hit Rate measures) the third-best of anyone in the class. This means that he got far fewer opportunities to create in space than his athletic prowess would allow him. Altogether, he left a lot of yards on the field by failing to find holes.
Hit Generated Yards
I’m conflicted when assessing Leonard Fournette’s open-field creativity, because there are two pretty convincing sides to the argument.
One case: With a 0.39 Broken Tackles per Hit rate (BTK/Hit — self-explanatory), he was one of the class’s best at bypassing tacklers; he sustained the class’s fifth-best overall HGY/C over 240 carries; he did both of these things against the toughest set of defenses of any rookie.
Another case: His numbers were bolstered by a two-game stretch that was much better than the rest of his games, largely due to two carries:
That inconsistency shows in how far he over-achieved what could be expected. Plotting his HGY/C against how often he got to the second level (H 10+ Rate — how often he generated at least 10 yards when hitting a hole) helps to illustrate. From the graph, we’d expect someone who made it to the second level as much as Fournette did to generate almost an entire yard less than he did:
What do these two sides tell me? The latter tells me that he lacked any semblance of good consistency, and relied instead on big, outlier plays. On the other hand, he still made those plays happen, which means that he offers real upside, backed up by how often he broke tackles in the first case (and more qualitatively, based on how explosive of an athlete he is). I might err on the side of caution here, but positive advances in other statistical skill categories (such as ID Rate) can make up for a regression to that trend line in the above graph.
Of course, he could also just get better. In particular, better vision (reflected in a better ID Rate next season) could result in better open-field consistency (reflected in a better H 10+ Rate). If that’s the case, the sky’s the limit for Fournette.
Stuff Generated Yards
One fundamental determinant of how well a player generates yardage in limited space overall is, simply, how often they can create chunks on their own — quantified by how often a back generates at least three yards on carries where the offensive line fails to open a hole (S 3+ Rate). As this graph shows, Fournette couldn’t do it that often (5.9% of the time), and as expected, he didn’t generate yardage in tight confines that well, period:
It takes neither a film expert nor a mathematician to say that Leonard Fournette can push tacklers and piles with the best of ‘em, but he didn’t do that often enough in 2017. I have two possible hunches to explain why: (1) With so many touches, he was simply too tired to really drive his legs as hard as possible. (2) While adjusting to NFL football, he was hesitant and thus didn’t get his pads behind him enough. Both of those explanations seem pretty plausible, especially when combined with one another, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt for now. I’ll be interested to see how he progresses in 2018.
Three Big Stats
Another tracking profile, another poor offensive line (not a coincidence). The Jags blocking unit was pretty dang bad at both creating push (what OL-GY/C measures) and opening lanes for Fournette (what Hole Rate measures).
Fortunately, the only way I can see this unit getting worse is with terrible health (which applies to every team). Jacksonville returns all eight of its key contributors from 2017 and drafted Will Richardson in the fourth round of the NFL Draft… and they added First-Team All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell in free agency. They’ll enjoy a nice boost from such strong continuity, as well as a nice injection of talent in Norwell. Of course, Richardson is only a fourth rounder, and none of the other starting offensive linemen were upgraded in the off-season, so the ceiling hasn’t really been raised anywhere except at left guard. Still, you have to be pretty optimistic about this blocking unit’s trajectory heading into 2018.
*I have tracked some veteran RBs already, and some teams have multiple rookies with over 75 carries, so there will be a difference between the rookie RB class’s 15 members and the amount of offensive lines being ranked.
Similar to Joe Mixon, it’s going to be very hard for Leonard Fournette to lose value in the next year or two. That gives him plenty of time to work on his craft (particularly, his vision and creative consistency) in order to reach the levels that Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara played at in 2017. Such progression can make Fournette a reliable long-term dynasty asset on his own, before considering his offensive line. Taking that unit’s upward trajectory into account, then, I’d feel pretty safe about drafting Leonard Fournette in the second round of a startup draft.