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Leonard Fournette Deep Dive: RB1 or Potential Bust? (2022 Fantasy Football)

Jul 3, 2022

Last year, multiple running backs shocked the fantasy football world. At the top of that list is Leonard Fournette. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has put together a fairly consistent fantasy career. However, Fournette had arguably the best year of his career last season.

There has been plenty of discussion among people in the fantasy football industry and on Twitter surrounding Fournette. Was his success last season a one-year fluke, or will he repeat his production in 2022?

Fantasy Football Redraft Draft Kit

Career Fantasy Production

Fournette was an elite fantasy running back right out of the gate. He was the RB9 his rookie season, averaging 17.7 PPR fantasy points per game. Furthermore, Fournette was a top-10 running back despite averaging only 5.6 fantasy points per game in the passing game that year. Unfortunately, injuries became a problem in 2018.

While he averaged 15 fantasy points per game in his second NFL season, Fournette missed half the year because of injuries. He also saw his yards per rushing attempt average drop by 15.4%. His targets per game also dropped by 11.9% in 2018. However, Fournette had a bounce-back 2019 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Despite the Jaguars’ awful record, Fournette had a career year across the board. He had 341 touches for 1,674 scrimmage yards and averaged 17.3 fantasy points per game. Surprisingly, Fournette was the RB7 that year despite scoring only three touchdowns. While the lack of touchdown production was disappointing, Fournette had 100 targets that year, 26% more than his first two years in the NFL combined.

Unfortunately, things went sideways during the 2020 offseason. Fournette and Jaguars butted heads and ultimately parted ways in August. He signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but had a limited role. Fournette averaged only 10.2 touches and 10.2 fantasy points per game during the regular season. However, he became a focal point of the offense during the playoffs.

Fournette averaged 16 rushing attempts, 5.3 targets, 112 scrimmage yards, one touchdown and 21.7 fantasy points per game during the playoffs. The only running back with a higher fantasy points per game average that postseason was Cam Akers. His success in the playoff led to the Buccaneers re-signing the veteran running back to a one-year deal in the offseason.

Last Season’s Success

While the Buccaneers re-signed Fournette, his ADP was well below where he finished. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Fournette was the RB36 and a mid-eighth-round pick in 12-team leagues. His teammate, Ronald Jones, was the RB34 and a mid-seventh-round pick. However, the Tampa Bay backfield was far from a 50-50 split like many projected.

Jones was one of the biggest busts last season as a seventh-round pick. He ended the year as the RB62, averaging only five fantasy points per game. Furthermore, Jones had only two games with a top-24 finish. The one time he ended the week as an RB1 was in Week 16 with Fournette sidelined.

Meanwhile, Fournette was a fantasy superstar and a league-winner last year, given his eighth-round draft capital. He was the RB6 despite missing three games, averaging 18.3 fantasy points per game. Furthermore, he was the RB4 on a points-per-game basis last year, behind only Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler. Yet, Fournette has a third-round ADP while Henry, Taylor and Ekeler each have an early first-round ADP, according to Fantasy Football Calculator.

Fournette was a consistent producer for fantasy teams. He was a top-12 running back in 35.7% of the games last year. More importantly, Fournette had only three games (21.4%) where he failed to end the week as a top-24 running back. Thus, he ended the week as a top-24 running back 78.6% of the time. Fournette was more likely to end the week as a top-24 running back than Henry (75%), Dalvin Cook (69.2%) and Alvin Kamara (61.5%) last season.

Fournette was a fantasy star for several reasons. First and foremost, he was a force on the ground. Despite playing only 64.7% of the snaps, Fournette had a 67% backfield share rate. He averaged a career-high 4.5 yards per rushing attempt and 5.1 per touch. More importantly, Fournette became a critical part of the offense in the red zone.

Despite playing only 14 games, he had 54 red zone touches. The only running backs with more red zone touches than Fournette were Taylor (92) and Ekeler (63). More importantly, Fournette had nine goal-line rushing attempts, ranking top 10 in that category. He also had a 4% total touchdown rate, which was higher than Kamara (3.1%), Cook (2.1%) and D’Andre Swift (3.3%).

However, Fournette’s role in the passing game was the most appealing part of his game for fantasy teams. He had a 14% target share and a 52.9% route participation, which led to 69 receptions on 84 targets for 454 receiving yards and a career-high two receiving touchdowns. Furthermore, Fournette averaged a career-high 9.03 fantasy points per game in the passing game last season.

But will he repeat that average in 2022?

Tampa Bay’s Offseason Moves

The offseason was a roller coaster for the Buccaneers and their fans. Tom Brady announced his retirement, and the franchise’s outlook completely changed. However, Brady unretired after 40 days. With Brady back on the team, Fournette quickly re-signed with the Buccaneers. He signed a three-year deal worth $21 million, which will keep him with the organization through at least the 2023 season.

Tampa Bay also signed Chris Godwin to a long-term contract and re-signed Giovani Bernard to a one-year deal. While many thought he would become the third downs back in Tampa last year, Bernard was sparingly used and should have a similar role this season. They also added Russell Gage in free agency to replace Antonio Brown as the No. 3 wide receiver on the team. With Godwin likely to miss the start of the year recovering from a torn ACL, Gage will play a critical role in the offense.

While the Buccaneers did lose both starting guards from last season, they traded for former New England Patriots starter Shaq Mason. Tampa Bay also used their second-round pick in the NFL Draft on Luke Goedeke. They also have high expectations for Aaron Stinnie, their sixth offensive lineman last season. The offensive line isn’t quite as good as last year’s unit. However, it remains one of the best in the NFL as long as Tristan Wirfs is healthy.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay lost two of their top three tight ends this offseason. O.J. Howard signed with the Buffalo Bills, while Rob Gronkowski retired. While some believe Gronk will return before the start of the season, Tampa Bay has currently lost their two best run-blocking tight ends from last season. These losses will slightly hurt Fournette’s rushing ability, but it’s not enough to be concerned about him fantasy-wise.

The Tampa Bay backfield also underwent several changes this offseason. Jones signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in March. At that point, many thought Fournette would see an uptick in snaps and usage and moved him up in their rankings. Yet, his rise took a hit during the NFL Draft after the Buccaneers used a third-round pick on Arizona State’s Rachaad White.

The former Sun Devil had a terrific final year at Arizona State. He had over 1,450 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. More importantly, White caught 43 of his 50 targets and had a 16% target share. Some compared him to David Johnson during the pre-draft process because of his ability to play a meaningful role in the passing game. The question is:  how much will White hurt Fournette’s role in the passing game this season?

Coaching Staff Changes

While Tampa Bay underwent several changes on the field this offseason, the coaching staff also changed dramatically. Bruce Arians retired from coaching and moved into a role with the front office. Replacing him is former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

Bowles has previous head coaching experience with the New York Jets from 2015-2018. While offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich flirted with the Jaguars regarding their open head coach position, he ultimately returned to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers will continue to run the same offense as last year under Arians. However, the play-calling might change with Arians in the front office and Bowles as the head coach.

In his four years as the Jets’ head coach, Bowles had three losing records and never made the playoffs. More importantly, he emphasized running the ball during his time as the head coach.

Year

Rank in Passing Attempts

Rank in Rushing Attempts

2015

15th

10th

2016

23rd

13th

2017

25th

17th

2018

22nd

16th

 

While the Jets ranked in the bottom-third of the league in pass attempts three of the Bowles’ four years in New York, the quarterbacks he coached were far from ideal. Bowles had Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, Josh McCown and a rookie Sam Darnold during his four years with the Jets. Brady is clearly a massive upgrade over that group.

Could Bowles move the team towards a run-heavy approach and lean on his defense more this season? Absolutely. However, expect the shift to be minimal and barely noticeable for two reasons.

First, Brady will not be happy handing the ball off 425 times this year. He has talked up Gage and the rest of the receiving corps this offseason. Brady did not come out of retirement to become a game manager. Second, Leftwich is auditioning for head coaching jobs next year. The last thing he wants to do is appear unable to lead a creative and high-powered explosive offense when he has Brady under center. So maybe, Fournette gets an extra one-three rushing attempts per game. However, expect this offense to remain a pass-happy one.

2022 Projections & Outlook

After a top-six finish in 2021 and an offseason full of changes, what can fantasy players expect from Fournette this season? The answer is another RB1 season, barring injury.

The Buccaneers were first in the NFL in pass attempts last season with 731. Consequently, they were 31st in rushing attempts with only 385 and were six rushing attempts away from being last in the NFL. However, Fournette had 46.8% of their rushing attempts from last season, including 58.6% in the 13 games he was healthy. Furthermore, the Buccaneers ranked ninth in the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns last season. Fournette had eight of them and 57.1% of the rushing touchdowns in the 13 games he was healthy.

Tampa Bay should have a slightly more balanced offense this season. Godwin will likely miss the start of the year, Gronkowski retired, and Brady doesn’t have a load of records to break. However, none of that will stop them from being top 10 in most passing categories.

Fournette was the RB6 last year with only 180 rushing attempts. Eight of the 10 running backs to finish top 10 last year had at least 200 rushing attempts, while the top-five running backs averaged 267.8 rushing attempts for the year.

White will likely earn a role in the passing game and cut into Fournette’s 14% target share from last season. However, White could be one missed pass protection rep away from getting yelled at and glued to the bench, thus opening the door for a three-down role for Fournette.

Furthermore, he should see an uptick in rushing attempts this season with Jones in Kansas City and the change at head coach. Maybe Fournette doesn’t crack the top-five this year, but fantasy players can feel confident drafting him as a low-end RB1.

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Mike Fanelli is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @Mike_NFL2.

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