A few days ago I came across a thought provoking and interesting article about LSU’s Leonard Fournette written by Graham Barfield. @GrahamBarfield on fantasyguru.com. You can find the article in its entirety here:
I took many things away from this article, and it made me wonder how scheme dependent Fournette might be at the next level. Would he be able to thrive in a spread offense with a quarterback out of the shotgun? Would he only have success as a single back or out of the I-formation with a fullback leading the way? To quote Barfield directly:
“In 2015-16, Fournette ran out of the shotgun on 22.1% of his attempts and averaged abysmal 3.50 Yards Created/Attempt on such carries. Over the past two years, no running back (other than Fournette) has averaged fewer than 4.0 Yards created/attempt out of the shotgun. To me, this is the ultimate dilemma with Fournette. Perhaps the sample is still too small to make whole judgments, but there is no refuting that Fournette is demonstrably better with the quarterback under center. In 2015-16, Fournette averaged 6.50 Yards Created/Attempt with the quarterback under center, which is miles ahead of the second-best runner from either I-formation or Singleback in my database, Christian McCaffrey (5.66 YC/Att.)”.
This paragraph alone actually made me question my ranking of Fournette as the number 1 running back in this class. I’m already a huge proponent of landing spot/situation over talent, which garners me plenty of criticism, but Fournette might be a perfect player to illustrate this point. Using Fournette’s success with his quarterbacks under center- and failures with them out of the shotgun I wanted to see which teams would be a better fit for him and which teams would provide him the best possible role to succeed in at the next level.
Using data from the 2016 NFL season from nflsavant.com I was able to break down each NFL team’s number of snaps under center and out of shotgun formations. I broke that down percentage wise per team and then totaled up all of the offensive snaps in the entire NFL for the season to establish a baseline average for the percentage of the time’s teams ran plays out of each formation.
On average, in 2016, NFL teams ran 54% of their plays out of the shotgun and 46% of their plays with their quarterbacks under center. By comparison (and I’ll come back to this later, as the year is relevant) in 2008, NFL teams ran an average of 72% of their plays from under center with only 27% of plays out of the shotgun. The NFL has changed quite a bit in the last nine years. Hopefully, it hasn’t passed Fournette by.
Based on the percentage of plays called from under center two teams jumped off the page as ideal landing spots for the LSU product; Atlanta and Denver. They ran plays from under center 65% and 64% of the time, respectively, which were far and away the top two teams in the category. Obviously, Atlanta has Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman and have no need for a running back. Denver recently signed CJ Anderson to an extension and drafted Devontae Booker last year. I’d imagine running back is not high on their list of priorities in the early rounds of this year’s draft either.
Among the teams that were above the 46% NFL average of plays under center, three more have no need for an early running back; Arizona (57% of snaps under center), Dallas (58%), and Tennessee (55%). That leaves us with three teams that ran plays from under center at least 8-percentage points higher than league average: Tampa Bay (58%), Washington (54%) and New England (54%).
Drafting running back early, isn’t the Patriots style and they don’t pick until the second round, so we can effectively eliminate them. The Redskins seem happy with Rob Kelley, and they still have an untested Keith Marshall waiting in the wings in case Kelley falters. Also, sleeper darling Mack Brown is on the roster, and they have bigger needs than running back.
That leaves us with Tampa Bay as an interesting landing spot. Incumbent starter Doug Martin must serve a 4-game PED induced suspension. This might mean the Bucs are in the market for a young stud back to help keep the pressure off of Jameis Winston and help him develop. They also have, arguably, the best receiving back in the NFL in Charles Sims, which means they’re in no rush for Fournette to develop on passing downs just yet. Many people are speculating that 2nd-year man Peyton Barber might even get a crack at the starting job too. However, it’s hard to believe that they feel the need to trade up to acquire Fournette, and they would likely need to because it’s doubtful he’ll fall to the 19th pick that Tampa currently holds.
Looking a little deeper, teams that came in just above the 46% league average of plays called from under center, we find the Giants (53%), Saints (52%), and Colts (51%). Various media outlets have linked the Giants to running backs in this class, but much like Tampa Bay, they sit in the 23rd spot in this draft, making it unlikely they land Fournette. The Saints sit at the #11 pick, but they have far too many holes to imagine them selecting the local product this early. This leaves the Colts who have the 15th overall pick and an aging- albeit productive- Frank Gore on the roster but are in desperate need of a powerful young back to help Andrew Luck. If Fournette can be even half of what many believe his upside to be, the Colts potentially have something special on offense for years to come.
In the event that the Colts were to pass on Fournette, recent reports indicate that the Ravens would love to grab him with the very next pick as they sit at 16th overall. It’s actually not a bad fit either, as they ran 49% of their plays from under center, the 12th most in the league, and could use the help in the backfield. Not to mention, historically, their 2 Superbowl winning teams featured workhorse backs in Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice, so it would be a personnel move they’re familiar with. The next few teams in order of plays under center all have no need for running backs as the Dolphins, Rams, Chargers and Bears all have young productive backs in place already.
After crunching the numbers, based on play calling alone, two top landing spots emerge as best case scenarios for Fournette:
They both are in need of a young lead back and already have the offenses in place where Fournette can succeed from day one. The Colts are probably the better fit with a better quarterback and offensive weapons around him, but it would appear that he should be able to be extremely successful in either city.
Although there are probably his best fits, don’t overlook the Saints and Ravens as possible dark horse candidates in this race. Mark Ingram is only 27 and under contract for two more years, but aside from him, the Saints have nobody capable of carrying a full load in the NFL. They could bring in Fournette and slowly groom him to take over when Ingram’s contract expires. This provides the Saints a more than capable backup, as Ingram has been known to get a little banged up from time to time. It’s probably unlikely given the team’s multiple needs in other areas, but the local kid is always a popular narrative, and the team scheme would fit him well.
The Ravens drafted Kenneth Dixon last year, but he’ll be missing time due to a PED suspension, which leaves them with Terrance West and Danny Woodhead to start the year in the backfield. That’s not terrible, but Fournette would be a huge improvement. If he ends up in any of these four spots, you should probably bump him up your fantasy draft board significantly as he’ll be in role and scheme that he can- and should- succeed in from day one.
What I found most interesting when I started compiling the numbers for each NFL team was how most of the teams I have seen linked to Fournette consist of the absolute worst landing spots for him based on his shotgun/under center splits. At the very top of the list of teams who ran more plays out of the shotgun than 54% league average were San Francisco (78% of plays ran out of the shotgun), Buffalo (71%), and Detroit (70%). I’ve heard his name mentioned a time or two in association with these teams but nothing that sounded significant. As we move down the list a bit, we’ll see that the next four teams, Jacksonville (65%), Carolina (65%), Green Bay (64%), and Cleveland (62%) all have needs at running back.
It’s hard to imagine the 49ers taking a running back with the #2 pick given the presence of Carlos Hyde and all of their other needs team-wide. Buffalo appears set with LeSean McCoy, Mike Gillislee, Jonathan Williams and the +/-37 fullbacks they signed this off-season. It’s rumored Detroit is looking at another running back, but it is doubtful Fournette would fall to them at 21 even if they did covet him. And that brings us to the not-so-sweet landing spots of Jacksonville and Carolina who have been the most widely speculated landing spots for Fournette for some time now. They each ran 65% of their plays from the shotgun- 11% points higher than league average. Given Fournette’s splits at the college level, this would likely be disastrous for him as a pro.
I’m going to dig into Jacksonville as a landing spot a bit here as they seem to be the front-runner in the Fournette sweepstakes at the moment given their early draft position. If you recall, I mentioned the 2008 season in the opening of this article, well, that was the last year that Jacksonville’s new head coach Doug Marrone was an offensive coordinator in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. That year, the Saints ran 73% of their plays from under center and a mere 37% from shotgun. Statistically, that was right in line with the league average at that time, but it does give a glimmer of hope that a Marrone-coached team can run more plays from under center if need be.
Although at his last stop as a head coach with Buffalo in 2013 and 2014, his teams ran 52% and 56% of their plays out of shotgun, respectively, so it was very much in line with today’s NFL averages. Another negative here is that after week 9 last season, when Marrone took over as interim head coach and Nathaniel Hackett was installed as the team’s offensive coordinator (his role this season as well) they ran 68% of their plays from shotgun formation. So Buffalo got worse, not better from Fournette’s point of view as a landing spot.
A quick look at coaching changes, particularly among the top teams that ran plays out of shotgun the most that would appear to be bad spots for Fournette: both San Francisco and Buffalo underwent coaching changes. Oddly enough, their new regimes might automatically flip those team to some of the best landing spots if their philosophies stay the same. The 78% shotgun 49ers brought in Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator from the 65% under center Falcons, so we could see a big swing in what they do there, and it could mean San Francisco has the potential to become an ideal spot for Fournette. The 71% shotgun Buffalo Bills brought in Sean McDermott as their new head coach, a former defensive coordinator. But McDermott hired former 64% under center, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison from the Denver Broncos.
I found it odd that the two most shotgun heavy teams in the league brought in the offensive coaching staffs from the two most under center heavy teams in the league. So what looks bad using last year’s data, might end up being ideal spots going forward. There’s no way to know as of now definitively, but basing it off their recent history, we might be looking at a big swing at the tops of both lists.
On the surface, the teams that have Fournette linked with them seem, at least initially, to be the absolute worst spots for him to end up on draft day. At the same time, most of the teams that seem like they would be ideal landing spots for him, already have their backfield filled or have much bigger needs to fill on draft day. Of course, any team could draft him with plans to change their entire offense around him, but it’s hard to speculate if that would be the case.
With the coaching changes in place in Jacksonville and Blake Bortles apparent regression last year, it’s plausible that the Jags may switch things up to take the pressure off of Bortles. But there is no way to know as of today, and with half of a season last year with their current head coach and offensive coordinator in place as interim fill-ins, they went more shotgun heavy, so early indicators don’t look good.
Carolina also seems like a dead end unless serious about actually limiting Cam Newton’s carries, which in my opinion will limit his effectiveness. The constant threat to run, especially in the red zone, is what Newton so dynamic and makes the Panther’s offense hard to prepare for.
I had Fournette as my RB1 in this draft and second player overall from day one (you can see my complete rookie ranking here: http://dynastyfootballfactory.com/dynasty-player-rankings/jd-2017-rookie-overall/ ), but after reading Graham Barfield’s analysis and then researching the teams and their play calling habits, I’m wavering. As a pure power back, Fournette is arguably the best we’ve seen come into the league since Adrian Peterson and may even be the heir apparent to one of my favorite football players of all time Earl Campbell. But his splits in and out of shotgun are very concerning and honestly, will have a significant impact on where he falls in my rookie rankings when I update them post draft. I see him falling as far as RB6 if he were to get drafted by Jacksonville and as high as the #1 rookie overall if he were to land in Indianapolis or Tampa.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big proponent of landing spot over talent and never before might there be a better player to illustrate this than with Leonard Fournette. The talent is there, that’s not deniable. But if he ends up in a bad situation, you just might need to stash him for four years until his rookie deal runs out and he lands in greener pastures.
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