Should the Recent Trend of Regrettable Running Back Contracts Concern the Jaguars?

John Shipley

The questions surrounding contracts the Jacksonville Jaguars have to consider in the near future currently focus on defensive linemen Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Marcell Dareus, as well as others such as cornerback A.J. Bouye and wide receiver Marqise Lee. 

But what about the financial decisions the team has to make after this offseason has come and gone? One player whose contract is nearing its end that the Jaguars have to keep in the back of their mind is running back Leonard Fournette, who is already three years into his NFL career. 

Jacksonville will already have to decide in the coming months whether to pick up Fournette's fifth-year option, which will cost about $10.189 million. But Jacksonville still has to consider Fournette's future past that decision. 

If the Jaguars decline the option, they will have to plan out the path for his 2021 free agency and if they want to resign him following next season. If they pick up the option, then they will have to make the same decision, just one year later.

Fournette, the fourth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, rebounded from a turbulent 2018 season and had arguably the best year of his career in 2019. After a sophomore season that saw Fournette have issues on and off the field, he ended up posting career-highs in rushing yards (1152), yards per carry average (4.3), receptions (76), and receiving yards (522 yards) last season. He only scored three touchdowns on the season, but he grew as a player and grew as a leader in the locker room.

But when looking at the future financial commitment to Fournette, the Jaguars would be wise to pay attention to the success rate of other recent running back paydays. 

Of course, all situations are different and context is required in each case. Nobody can tell the future and know that a player's body will break down following him signing a new deal. 

But the numbers are the numbers, and they paint a grim picture for recent running back contracts. 

The Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals have major buyers remorse after handing out top running back contracts, despite each running back having solid production before they got paid. Todd Gurley, who is currently the second-highest paid running back, had a good start to the 2018 season before injuries took their toll on him in the postseason and in 2019 (857 yards, 3.8 yards per carry). 

David Johnson, the fourth-highest paid back, has rushed for only 1,285 yards (3.7 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns in the two seasons since the Cardinals gave him a three-year, $39 million extension that included $30 million guaranteed. Toward the end of 2019, he lost his role in the Arizona offense to midseason acquisition Kenyan Drake. 

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons may soon move on from Devonta Freeman, who has played like a shell of his former self since the Falcons extended him in 2017. Freeman, the fifth-highest paid running back on a per-year basis, has missed 18 games since signing the deal and has only rushed for 1,589 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns since, with over half of those figures coming in 2017 alone. 

Those are three of the greatest cautionary running back tales as of late, but they are not alone, with others such as Lamar Miller, Jerrick McKinnon, Dion Lewis, and Giovani Bernard joining them. 

Le'Veon Bell is the most recent case of why it is sometimes wiser to just back away from paying a big-money free agent back, rushing for only 789 yards (3.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns in the first year of a four-year, $52.5 million deal. 

The only recent running backs to get paid recently who have produced at above a replacement-level are Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot, the highest-paid running back in the NFL and Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram. Fournette has never produced to the consistency Elliot has, while the Jaguars don't have an ideal situation around Fournette like the Ravens have around Ingram. 

Fournette's 2019 season was a solid one and he should be commended for the hard work he put in to improve on and off the field. He is one of Jacksonville's three best offensive players, and has been for the majority of his career when healthy, but what are the odds of him bucking the trend of regrettable running back contracts? This is the question the Jaguars will have to weigh sooner than later.

Expect Fournette to once again be a building block of the offense in 2020, but everything beyond then is anyone's guess. When deciding on his financial future with the team, however, the Jaguars should at least be considering the recent misses at the running back position, and what it could mean for them moving forward.