Leonard Fournette is a rare physical specimen playing running back for the LSU Tigers in college football’s best conference. He has great size (mass) and is clearly a fast runner as he pulls away from SEC defenders fairly regularly. Simply put, he is a nightmare for defenders if he carries any momentum into the second level.
Fournette’s highlights are filthy, and he can be regularly seen tossing defenders aside with the ball in his hands. These plays are thrilling to watch, but they don’t necessarily tell us anything as he’s much bigger than these defenders and is clearly a bully with the ball in his hands.
Sometimes these kinds of plays can lead to problems in writing a scouting report on the player as the highlights can bleed into other areas of evaluation, so it definitely requires a little attention to keep things completely compartmentalized.
Fournette is certainly an intriguing prospect and a fun watch. He displays rare qualities in some areas and does things at the college level that are generally not seen, but he is not a perfect prospect and there are areas of concern.
Let’s take a trait-by-trait look at Fournette as a player to see where his skills are today and how those skills might translate at the NFL level.
Fournette showcases very good long speed as evidenced by his 40-yard time at the Combine. However, there is a build-up element to his speed and he isn’t quick and twitchy like others runners in this class. When he’s up to speed, he is very explosive in his movements, but the nuance is getting him up to top speed without slowing or stopping his feet.
Fournette does a have a touch of wiggle at top speed but getting Fournette to change direction or slow his feet should be the primary goal of the defense. Fournette doesn’t have the ability to change direction fluidly and thus, he slows his feet and has the regather all that momentum. That’s death at the NFL Level. Fournette displays good balance through contact at top speed, but again, that balance is lessened when defenses have made him slow his feet.
With the Ball in His Hands:
Fournette is like a freight train and is incredibly difficult to bring down as he breaks tackles easily. From a ball security perspective, Fournette has no issues. He had two fumbles (one lost) in 194 touches in 2014 and three fumbles (0 lost) in 319 touches in 2015. In 2016, he had three fumbles (two lost) in 144 touches. Overall, he had eight fumbles in 657 touches, and I’d say there’s no concern here.
Fournette doesn’t display great ability to execute the cutback and it’s one of the reasons I really wanted to see his 3-cone and short-shuttle times at the Combine. While he shows average vision and can be impatient to run the ball before blocks get set up, he still gets away with it at times due to his sheer mass. One thing that stands out is Fournette’s mentality as a runner, mainly his desire to plant defenders into the dirt as he is finishing his runs.
He will absolutely keep plays alive because of his desire to physically assert his will over defenders. That said, the running back position has a short shelf life and Fournette’s desire to create collisions brings a higher risk of injury than it would for an elusive runner that wants to make defenders miss.
Fournette has good hands and looks to catch the ball naturally but his role in the LSU offense is very limited in this area. Fournette is more a decoy than anything else is the passing game, but he doesn’t look natural at all in his understanding of the spacing and timing of the passing game. There are times when he’s content to stand next to a defensive tackle (this means he’s being covered by that defensive tackle, a much lesser athlete) and it speaks to how little LSU uses him as a receiver. He isn’t natural in this phase of the game.
From a blocking perspective, Fournette is definitely game as he shows that he’s physically capable and technically sound, but he needs more reps and some refinement.
It is tough to find another player that plays a tougher brand of football than Fournette. He had incredible production as a freshman and even better as a sophomore and was as good as it gets. Injuries derailed him a bit as a junior but he was still effective for the most part. Fournette doesn’t take time off and gives a full effort each and every snap, and it is obvious that his team feeds off of his effort.
Fournette “is” the LSU offense and carries it on his back, a true leader on the field with the ball in his hands. He is a true power back, a monster with the ball in his hands and as long as his body holds up that physical style will definitely translate to the NFL.
Currently, Fournette looks to be a two-down runner at the NFL level and with some effort on his end; he can work into a situation where he can be reliable on third downs. Fournette will challenge to become the first running back selected in the 2017 NFL draft, and what ultimately will decide it is whether a team wants a dominant two-down player with solid upside or a player with an already expanded skillset. Fournette has also dealt with lower leg injuries and that is a concern as he will always take contact because of his mentality and lack of lateral agility.
In some ways, Fournette’s fit is potentially problematic for the current NFL and the shotgun/spread nature around the league. There are some very clear requirements for Fournette as he requires an offense with a quarterback under center and a lead fullback. Fournette also needs to work in a situation where he’s given the runway mentioned above, and that means he needs to end up in a place with an offensive line that can clear some room for him (think Oakland).
If he’s given those things, there’s no reason to expect him to not live up to his draft position. However, if he gets selected by a team that ignores these obvious needs and if the offensive line can’t give him clear lanes to run through, there is a real chance he struggles at the NFL level to live up to his draft position.