The failure of the Fournette draft pick can not be understated
First things first: it needs to be properly contextualized just how poor of a decision it was to select Leonard Fournette No. 4 overall, both when it happened in 2017 and now, three years later. Fournette is not at all at fault for the Jaguars selecting him where they did, but it can't be ignored that not only is the pick one of the worst in team history, it may be one of the worst picks in all of NFL history considering the lack of return on investment, the players selected after him and the flawed process the Jaguars used to even get to that point.
This isn't to say Fournette is one of the worst players picked, obviously, but three seasons removed from Fournette being picked over Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Jamal Adams and Christian McCaffrey, it is obvious how poor of a pick it was. After three years, the Jaguars got just, 36 regular season, 666 carries for 2,631 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns, along with 134 receptions for 1,009 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Fournette also played in three postseason games, rushing 70 times for 242 yards (3.46 average) and four touchdowns, with three of those touchdowns coming against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoff's Divisional Round, but that is all.
To say this is below the expectations of a top-5 pick would be an understatement, but to select this over two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL is an entirely different argument. And it isn't like the Jaguars had any semblance to an answer at quarterback when they passed on Watson and Mahomes for Fournette. Blake Bortles was coming off a 2016 season in which he was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, and the Jaguars releasing him after 2018 shows just how poorly his tenure went.
So not only did the Jaguars pass on elite players in favor of giving Bortles even more chances after three years of starting, but they got just about average running back play out of doing so. In summary, the pick was an unmitigated disaster both then and now.
Young running backs in Jacksonville now have a prime opportunity
With Fournette no longer set to shoulder the load for the Jaguars' running game, who is going to step up and replace the 341 touches he had last year? Veteran Chris Thompson should handle the passing game duties, but Jacksonville needs to find someone to replace Fournette's sheer volume of carries.
The obvious candidates to do so are two second-year running backs in Ryquell Armstead and Devine Ozigbo, each of whom now has a terrific opportunity in front of them.
Armstead missed parts of Jacksonville's training camp due to time spent on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but he was a fifth-round pick just a year ago. He was Jacksonville's No. 2 running back as a rookie, rushing 35 times for 108 yards (3.1 average) and catching 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He has looked impressive in limited viewing at training camp, and his downhill, aggressive running style fits what the Jaguars and Jay Gruden like out of their backs. Considering he was better as a pass-catcher than a runner in 2019, the Jaguars could think he has three-down potential.
Meanwhile, Ozigbo went undrafted last season but was a phenomenal playmaker for the New Orleans Saints during the preseason. He was surprisingly waived by the Saints, leading to the Jaguars claiming him on waivers and stashing him as their No. 3 running back last season. He only had 12 touches last season (nine carries, three receptions), but he has flashed throughout all of training camp thanks to his explosive running style, pass protection and catching ability.
Does this actually mean the Jaguars are "tanking?"
With Fournette being the latest in a long line of Jaguars to be sent out the door over the last year, the predictable take from most on the outside was that the Jaguars waived Fournette in an attempt to purposely undercut their own chances at winning games in 2020. The Miami Dolphins were deemed the league's "tanking" team last year, and it is clear the Jaguars have been given the label this season.
But does waiving Fournette actually indicate that? The Jaguars went 15-21 (41.6% winning rate) in regular season games Fournette played in since they drafted him. He rushed for 100 yards or more in just eight of his 36 starts, and he scored a rushing touchdown in just 14 of those games, with just three games featuring multiple rushing touchdowns. He has a career rushing average of just 4.0, a figure he has only eclipsed in one season. Simply put, he was not a very productive back. And in the instances in which he was productive from a volume standpoint, he was rarely effective from an efficiency and value standpoint.
Fournette didn't make the Jaguars a good team in the past. You can make the argument that he was still the best running back on the team and therefore they are worse off without him, and it would have some merit. But with Fournette being piled on so often over the last three years for not living up to his draft status, how can waiving him be seen as tanking? Other moves, maybe. Just not quite sure this one fits.
The timing is curious at best, unfair to Fournette at worst
If there is anything to question about this move, it is the timing. If the Jaguars think Armstead and Ozigbo deserve a chance to show what they can do in 2020 since they were never going to extend Fournette anyways, then that is fine. But why was that decision made now and not before training camp began?
The Jaguars may have seen something out of their running back room in training camp to give them the push they needed to waive Fournette before his contract year began. But it would be hard to convince most people that the Jaguars didn't enter training camp without at least a small idea they may be releasing Fournette before it was all said and done. After all, the season opener is just 13 days away. The logic for waiving Fournette is sound -- they have young backs they like and he wasn't productive -- but the timing is not.
And frankly, the timing isn't exactly fair to Fournette. He now has less than two weeks to find a team, learn a new offense, immerse himself in a locker room and earn a role within a team. That is a tall task for anybody, let alone a running back whose value has diminished in recent years. It makes sense why the Jaguars waived Fournette, but it makes less sense why did they it now.
Jacksonville may air it out more in 2020
With the presence of Fournette no longer dictating the Jaguars' offensive scheme, could they finally become a more pass-oriented team? It seems like there is at least a chance, especially considering the issues the team had scoring on the ground last year (just three rushing touchdowns).
Add in the fact that the Jaguars have the best passing-game weapons they have had since 2015 thanks to a receiver room that includes DJ Chark, Keelan Cole, Laviska Shenault, Chris Conley, Collin Johnson and Dede Westbrook. Add in a healthy Tyler Eifert and Chris Thompson and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, and it appears the Jaguars may finally be moving away from their ground-and-pound style of play.
"Everyone wants to be able to run the football when they need to, but I think the most important thing is scoring points," Marrone said on Monday during a press conference which followed the Marrone news.
"I think we did a very good job going out and getting some playmakers. We’ve got some really good talent at the receiving position. We’ve got talent at the tight end position. We’ve got guys in the backfield that do a very good job in the passing game. The line has really gotten a lot better. Now, [with] all these things that I say, we have to go out there and produce, but this is what I’m seeing on the field and I think it’s going to lead to more touchdowns. At the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to score more touchdowns.”