JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Leonard Fournette had a simple reason for everything he did during his first full offseason in the NFL: “I want to be great.”
Lots of players say that, but only a few truly understand what it takes to follow through on the claim. The preseason has just begun, but Fournette’s Jacksonville Jaguars teammates seem convinced that the second-year running back is on his way to what could be a monster season in 2018.
Everything is pretty much in place for that to happen.
The team signed All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard A.J. Cann has improved significantly after an offseason of getting stronger and fixing his fundamentals, so the offensive line is ready to go. The Jaguars also signed two new pass-catchers — receiver Donte Moncrief and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins — and they believe second-year receivers Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole will make significant strides.
“I feel like he’s faster, just from seeing him catching the ball and exploding.”
Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on Leonard Fournette
Quarterback Blake Bortles is finally pain-free after wrist surgery and says he’s as confident and comfortable as he has ever been, thanks partly to a second full season with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
So Fournette improving on his rookie season is pretty much up to him now. A breakout season would appease Jaguars fans as well as fantasy football owners. Though ranked among the top 10 running backs in many fantasy rankings, Fournette might slip out of the first round in drafts.
Bortles is betting on a breakthrough.
“Obviously the season he had last year was awesome as a rookie,” Bortles said. “I think what has been impressive is that I think it is easy in that situation to take an offseason off. He just went through a whole [season]. That is the longest year of your life when you come from college and you train for the combine and then you go right into rookie minicamp and [training] camp. That is a really long year. I think it is easy to kind of get lazy in the offseason. That is not what he did.”
Fournette lost almost 20 pounds, committed to getting stronger, and gained a fuller understanding of Hackett’s offense. The first is the most noticeable difference about the fourth overall pick in 2017. Fournette is listed at 228 pounds, but said he’s 223, which was his weight when he ran for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore at LSU in 2015.
It’s 17 pounds lighter than when he reported to training camp last year. He ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season and 242 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason as a rookie, so it’s not like he didn’t produce. However, he averaged 3.9 yards per carry in the regular season, dealt with a lingering ankle injury that cost him one game, and missed another game with a quad injury.
Playing lighter should help take some stress off his ankles, and he said he feels more explosive and elusive.
“I feel healthier,” Fournette said. “I would say it is probably one of my first years feeling healthier than I ever did before.”
Fournette said he doesn’t feel as if he has lost any power, which is important because the Jaguars drafted Fournette in part because of his style. Coach Doug Marrone and executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin wanted the team to adopt a physical, smashmouth identity. Usually it’s the line that sets that tone on offense, but last season it was Fournette, and nothing symbolized that more than his regular-season run against Pittsburgh.
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell and Fournette had been yapping back and forth all day — typical rookie and past-your-prime stuff — and Fournette found himself one-on-one against Mitchell after breaking past the line of scrimmage on a fourth-quarter run.
Fournette waved at Mitchell to come get him.
The 6-foot-1, 221-pound Mitchell went low and Fournette ran through the contact and ended up with a 12-yard gain.
Fournette’s teammates went nuts and it was an important moment in the 2017 season. However, Fournette said there needs to be fewer of those collisions in 2018. He will still run through people when he has to, but said he will be smarter about contact to reduce the wear and tear on his body so he’s fresher late in the season — and to extend his career as well.
“If the out of bounds is right there, I have to take it,” Fournette said. “It comes with the experience of your game. I think we practice that a lot more. Also, that is what our OC [Hackett] wanted, for me to save my body.”
Just imagine what a lighter and slightly-less-banged-up Fournette might be able to do in 2018. He had the two fastest times of any ball carrier in 2017 (22.05 mph on a 90-yard TD run against the Steelers and 21.76 mph on a 75-yard TD run against the Los Angeles Rams) and weighed between 230 and 240 pounds. It’s possible he could put up even faster times in 2018.
Incidentally, that’s why Fournette was not happy with his “Madden NFL 19” speed rating. When he found out it was an 87, he asked to be taken out of the game. EA Sports listened to his complaint, investigated, and agreed he needed an update. Now he’s an 88 — which still is two points lower than what he’d consider the lowest acceptable rating.
He’s probably got a legitimate beef, if you believe defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
“I feel like he’s faster, just from seeing him catching the ball and exploding,” Ngakoue said. “I’ve seen him a couple of times [when] he caught a couple of routes and just was hitting it down the sidelines. I can tell he’s been working hard.”
Fournette isn’t concerned with specific stats in 2018. He’s not targeting 1,500 yards or 20 touchdowns. In an open letter to fans on his website, he wrote about being fueled by last season’s disappointing loss at New England in the AFC Championship Game and that he and his teammates are “laying it out there for Jags fans everywhere.” For the Jaguars to surpass last season’s success, though, they will need Fournette to put up big numbers.
Bortles is confident he will.
“I think [Fournette’s offseason work] speaks volumes of how important it is to him and how much better he wants to be and higher he wants to take his game,” he said.