Leonard Fournette Is Overvalued in the First Round of Fantasy Football Drafts
As a rookie for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Leonard Fournette racked up more than 1,000 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. The running back could also be considered a major factor in the Jaguars' return to the playoffs and surprising run to the AFC Championship game.
To build on his first season as a workhorse running back, Fournette vowed to get even better by slimming down to his college playing weight. Will Fournette's leaner build improve his stamina, keep him on the field more, and increase his production? Or will it make him more vulnerable to devastating injuries?
That much we can't answer just yet, but we can dig in and see how good he really was in 2017 -- and if he should be a first-round pick on your fantasy football team.
A Strong First Season
When the Jaguars selected Fournette fourth overall in the 2017 draft, the team had fulfilled its goal of creating an offensive identity for the franchise, which revolved around a smash-mouth rushing attack. When paired with a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme and ultra-talented boundary cornerbacks, the Jaguars personified the timeless football adage of dominating the game with an opportunistic offense and a turnover-creating defense en route to a 10-6 record and an AFC South Division championship.
Fournette hit the ground running -- literally -- in his first regular season game by rushing 26 times for 100 yards and scoring a touchdown. Pretty impressive for a rookie's first game in the NFL. But he didn't stop there.
Throughout his rookie season, Fournette rushed for 100 yards or more in five different games and scored at least one touchdown in eight different games. From a volume perspective, the Jaguars force fed Fournette more than 20 touches in 10 different games, and as fantasy football players should know by now, a consistent volume floor for running backs is king when determining who to start and sit each week.
Fournette finished the 2017 season as the RB8 in fantasy leagues (standard scoring), thanks to 1,342 total yards and 10 touchdowns. When taking into account fantasy points per game, Fournette actually outscored LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram, Melvin Gordon, and fellow rookie phenom Alvin Kamara.
|2017 Rank||Player||Standard Points||Games||Average|
Last year, Fournette scored more than 16 standard fantasy points five times and easily had the most productive stretch of his rookie season by earning 20.5, 30.4, and 19.8 standard fantasy points in Weeks 4, 5, and 6, respectively.
Speaking of peak performances, the lasting memories of Fournette's productive rookie season are his two ceiling games against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5 and the AFC Divisional Playoffs. In those two games alone, Fournette piled up a combined 56 touches, 303 rushing and receiving yards, and 5 touchdowns. If only he could face the Steelers every game of his career!
Other Young Backs on Parade
Some sobering perspective on Fournette's strong rookie season is a comparison to other young and talented running backs also on the cusp of superstardom. Here is a list of running backs drafted within the first three rounds since 2016 who also earned significant playing time throughout their rookie season (at least 200 touches).
|Player||Rookie Year Points||Overall Running Back Ranking|
While Fournette's rookie season was certainly productive to both the Jaguars and fantasy owners, his value was surpassed by two other rookie backs from his own draft class. When Ezekiel Elliott's stellar rookie season in 2016 is added to the top of the young running back table from 2017, Fournette's rookie season -- with fewer than 200 fantasy points -- looks a little more pedestrian on the whole.
Elliot, the fourth overall pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 draft, rushed 322 times for 1,631 yards as a rookie. The rushing floor from Elliot was spectacular, but what really vaulted him to the second highest scoring running back as a rookie was his whopping 16 total touchdowns.
Hunt, the Kansas City Chiefs' third-round selection last season, rushed for 1,327 yards and 8 touchdowns throughout all 16 games of his rookie season. However, Hunt's prowess as a pass catcher -- he caught 53 passes for 455 yards and another 3 touchdowns -- greatly impacted his final fantasy standing as the third-ranked running back in 2017.
Kamara, the third-rounder from the New Orleans Saints in 2017, rushed for only 728 yards and scored a hefty 8 touchdowns but also dynamically caught 81 passes for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns for a final finish of fourth among running backs. Kamara's ceiling is probably the highest of the bunch with a 1,000-yard rushing and 1,000-yard receiving season on the horizon.
Adding rookie Saquon Barkley's potential top-five production to the other emerging sophomore lead backs in McCaffery, Mixon, and Dalvin Cook, Fournette clearly has some up-and-coming threats en route to a repeat top-eight running back season. And those are only the young backs in the league.
The Best Ability...Is Availability
Throughout his rookie season, Fournette popped up on the Jaguars' injury report over 10 different weeks with at least one ankle, shoulder, and/or quadriceps ailment, forcing him to miss three games entirely. Staying healthy has to be a priority for Fournette this season.
While the heavy workload each week was a blessing for his fantasy owners, it also may have fatigued the bruising rookie running back and made him less productive later in the season. Fournette ran for 596 yards and scored a total of 7 touchdowns through Week 8 but saw his production drop to 444 yards and only 3 touchdowns in the second half of the 2017 regular season.
In that first split, Fournette -- when excluding fumbles -- maintained a Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry rate of 0.09 and a Rushing Success Rate of 37.69%. The league-average rates for running backs in 2017 were -0.02 and 38.18%, respectively. The above-average per-carry Rushing NEP and average Success Rate indicates big-play ability.
Both of those numbers were well below league average from Week 9 on. In that split, Fournette's numbers dropped to -0.12 and 31.88%.
Secondly, when compared to the top running backs, Fournette's snap percentage of 62% -- 10th among starting running backs -- has to increase before fantasy owners can confidently invest their first-round draft capital in the Jaguars runner.
In addition to the change-of-pace usage of T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant, Fournette still has usage concerns. Game flow may have also artificially propped up Fournette's rushing value to an unsustainable amount as the Jaguars were able to achieve a 10-6 record. Fournette scored 6 of his 10 total touchdowns in the four games that the Jaguars won by more than 15 points.
It makes sense that the Jaguars would run out the clock with their highly productive running game when they are leading in the fourth quarter. However, fantasy owners cannot confidently project blowout victories for any team, let alone a team quarterbacked by Blake Bortles.
While Fournette is absolutely a red zone scoring dynamo -- he scored 7 of his 10 total touchdowns within the 10-yard line -- he needs to prove more consistently that he can be a threat to reach pay-dirt from anywhere on the field, from a strong-side blast on first down to a deceptive screen pass on third down, like Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, and Elliott have all shown throughout their careers.
Pass on Fournette First
Before his rookie season, Fournette had an average draft position (ADP) from FantasyFootballCalculator.com of 23rd overall (RB11) in standard scoring formats and 27th overall (RB13) in points per reception (PPR) scoring formats. As a second-, third-, or even fourth-round draft investment, Fournette was extremely valuable to fantasy owners in 2017.
However, per ADP data from FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Fournette is going eighth overall (RB7) in standard scoring formats and 12th overall (RB9) in PPR scoring formats. With plenty of uncertainty surrounding Fournette's health and limited role in the offense, take a pass on Fournette late in the first round of your season-long fantasy football draft.
Our models do project Fournette as the RB8, forecasting him for 1,195 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 277 attempts, plus another 37 catches for 295 receiving yards and 1 receiving touchdown. With that solid -- but unspectacular -- prognosis in mind, there just isn't much room for us to profit by taking a risk on Fournette in the first round of fantasy drafts.