2017 RB Class

Leonard Fournette’s Tale of Two Seasons

A lot can happen in a year. That’s especially true in football.

Injuries, scheme/personnel changes, and general talent degradation all work in ways to change year-over-year player performance. After struggling through an ankle injury for all of 2016, Leonard Fournette missed six games and averaged 26% fewer rushing yards per contest compared to 2015. To that point, after ripping opposing defenses for 1.83 rushing scores per game in 2015, Fournette’s touchdown output dipped by nearly 38% in 2016 (1.14 RuTDs/game).

It’s clear that Fournette’s 2016 counting stats suffered from his balky ankle, but what does the Yards Created data have to say? Well, I took the time to go back and chart five games of Fournette’s 2015 season and compare them to his already strong 2016 Yards Created data.

The results were pretty telling.

The Parallels of 2015 and 2016

After I mentioned that Ezekiel Elliott is a far more polished prospect entering the NFL than Fournette, I got a few nice responses on Twitter that indicated the LSU product’s ankle injury played a part in his “decline” in play from the last two years. Because Fournette is a high-level prospect and he is widely considered a top-20 potential pick in the NFL Draft, I thought it was important to oblige the curious and see if there were any whole-scale changes in his game.

At least on Yards Created per Attempt basis, Fournette’s year-over-year performance was virtually unchanged:

NameGAttemptsYards Created/Att.
Leonard Fournette (2016 Season)5995.83
Leonard Fournette (2015 Season)5965.85

I’ll admit it: This figure certainly surprised me. Because Fournette was hurt in 2016—the severity of which is still unknown—I assumed he would post slightly better Yards Created/Attempt metrics in 2015. That just wasn’t the case.

In fact, at least on a per carry basis, Fournette may have been slightly better in 2016 when adjusting for defensive pressure. Fournette faced seven or fewer defenders in the box on just 33.3% of his attempts in 2016, which is the lowest figure in my database to-date. This simply means that Fournette saw eight or more defenders in the box on an extraordinarily high amount of his carries in 2016. (For reference, the average college running back faces seven or fewer defenders in the box on about 70% of their carries).

In 2015, Fournette faced dramatically lighter boxes. There were seven or fewer defenders in the box on 63% his carries two seasons ago—which is still below the sample average—but it certainly makes Fournette’s injury-riddled 2016 look all the more impressive.

Even while playing through an explosiveness-zapping ankle injury, Fournette battled through tons of defensive pressure and still came out well above average on a Yards Created/Attempt basis. However, the notion that Fournette’s on-field performance suffered dramatically in 2016 is entirely unfounded.

So, What Changed?

Unlike his consistent Yards Created/Attempt metrics year-over-year, there was one figure that reversed dramatically from 2015 to 2016: Missed Tackles Forced.

There is no denying ankle injuries are particularly straining for running backs. Decreased ankle flexion disallows runners to be as explosive, decisive, or as potent as they need to be. Leonard Fournette is a fantastic case study in this regard.

Remarkably, Fournette forced more missed tackles (MTs) per attempt through power, speed, and elusiveness in 2015:

YearMTs Forced/Att.MTs: Power/Att.MTs: Elusiveness/Att.MTs: Speed/Att.
College RB Avg.0.3650.140.120.10

That’s more like it.

One of the biggest hang-ups in Fournette’s 2016 data was in missed tackles forced, but his season two years ago reveals that he is one of the most powerful runners since Yards Created began in 2016. At 0.23 missed tackles forced per attempt through power (which I define as running through arm wraps and/or defenders), no running back has made more defenders miss via power alone in my coffers than Fournette’s 2015 season.

Moreover, Fournette’s strong general missed tackle per rush attempt figures in 2015 suggests that not only is he a highly creative runner on a per carry basis, he is also diverse in the ways he can make defenders miss. On a missed tackles forced per attempt basis, Fournette’s 2015 season ranks fourth-best behind Joe Mixon (0.570 MTs Forced/Att.), Dalvin Cook (0.495), and Tyler Ervin (0.482) while his 2016 campaign (0.252) is the single-worst data point I have charted among college rushers to-date.

While we can’t just toss away Fournette’s 2016 data, there is no denying Fournette’s elusiveness and ability to make defenders look silly is top-notch when he is fully healthy. Fournette’s suddenness, raw speed, and lateral agility were all demonstrably more impressive in 2015 than in his final collegiate season.

The Full Picture

Although it was surprising that Fournette did not create more yards per attempt in 2015 when compared to his last collegiate year, he was unequivocally more nimble and sudden in his movements when healthy. A strong showing in Missed Tackles Forced in 2015 crushes one of my main concerns over Fournette: He is certainly more elusive than his 2016 data indicates.

What’s more, Yards Created data also reveals that Fournette improved ten-fold as both a receiver and pass blocker in his final college year. In 2016, Fournette improved in Receiving Yards Gained per Route Run by 1.99 yards year-over-year and bumped his Pass Protection Execution rate by 7%. Fournette may never be a passing down maven, but his Yards Created does show rapid development that could continue on the right team at the next level.

This comparison exercise answered three key questions about Fournette’s on-field performance, his ability to make defenders miss, and his improving contributions on passing downs. However, it also showed that Fournette really struggled out of the shotgun at LSU.

In 2015-16, Fournette ran out of shotgun on 22.1% of his attempts and averaged an 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 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.).

Taking out the proverbial time machine definitely answered questions over Fournette’s elusiveness as a ball carrier. To that point, Fournette is a special athlete when adjusting for straight-line weight-adjusted speed, but he still has major work to do as a contributor when his team is playing out of shotgun in the NFL. Fournette is fantastic and his 2015 data certainly answered a bunch of open-ended questions, but his one glaring weakness remained when his quarterback is not under center. There is a lot to love in Fournette’s game and it’s easy to get weighed down on negative traits, but his struggles while running out of the shotgun at LSU cannot be ignored.

(Column originally posted March 2017 at Fantasy Guru).

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