Why the 49ers Should Avoid Running Back Leonard Fournette in the NFL Draft

Oct 22, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) before a game against the Mississippi Rebels at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) before a game against the Mississippi Rebels at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

As of this writing, the 49ers will have the second pick in the NFL Draft, kicking off on April 27. Today we’ll look at why they should avoid LSU running back Leonard Fournette.

The 49ers head into the NFL Draft with second overall pick after finishing a 2-14 season.

There are plenty of new faces in the front office and coaching staff, including newly hired general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.

With the staff and coaching hires comes changes in scheme and offensive and defensive philosophies.

For the offense, Shanahan is expected to run a primarily outside zone-based offense. I covered the offensive scheme extensively in a series of articles here for Niner Noise (here and here) and 49ers Web Zone (here and here).

Balancing the needs of the team with the scheme is important, and teams shouldn’t often pass up the best player available for player who fits the scheme.

For those reasons, the 49ers should definitely stay away from Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette.

Opinion on Fournette varies. Some analysts, like Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, has Fournette at No. 2 on his top-50 big board, while Pro Football Focus has him at No. 23 on theirs.

Fournette had a big sophomore year, finishing third in total rushing yards (1,953) with 22 touchdowns. Hampered by an ankle injury in 2016, Fournette finished with 843 yards and eight touchdowns on 129 rushing attempts, while playing in just seven games.

Leonard Fournette Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2017.

At 6-foot-0 and 240 pounds, Fournette is a big physical runner, who punishes defenders at the point of attack. He shows excellent leg drive and strength when met by defenders and is primarily a north-south runner who excels between the tackles.

And according to Pro Football Focus, he led the nation with 85 missed tackles forced.

In the gif above, LSU is running a inside zone to the right with a lead blocker (a zone run variation in Kyle Shanahan’s playbook). Fournette hits the hole and proceeds to bury two helpless defenders before being tackled.

However, inside zone and power running game are not plays prominently featured in Shanahan’s playbook.

According to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Ratcliffe, the 2016 Falcons ran the outside zone 43 percent of the time, the inside zone 27.3 percent and gap/man-scheme runs about 15 percent of the time.

Even though Fournette did see a fair amount of carries in zone-based runs, they were not his strength, as he often showed little patience in pressing and waiting for the zone cut lanes to open. Often when he did not have a lane, he was incapable of creating his own space.

Fournette would likely excel in an offense primarily running gap/man-scheme runs (power, counter, trap, wham, etc.) because he often needs an already open running lane to get going.

In this play above, Fournette follows his blocker to the outside and sees an outside lane a split second too late. His blocker has outside leverage on the defender. But by the time he decides to cut outside, another defender has already shot behind the blocker to disrupt the play.

Another weakness that wouldn’t benefit Fournette in Shanahan’s offense is the inability to gain acceleration to the edge. He would need to bounce outside in the outside zone.

Very seldom did he ever hit the running lane that developed on any outside run unless it was wide open.

In the above play, LSU is running zone read. At the point of attack, the play forces Fournette to bounce outside to find a running lane. He gets too downhill before breaking outside and cannot get the necessary acceleration running toward the sideline before being chased down from behind.

Also while running zone, running backs are seldom going to hit the hole untouched, and therefore must work to keep their pad level low.

One drawback to Fournette’s running style is he so often hits the hole with no contact, that he stands straight up and down. This is not an ideal position for which to attack the line of scrimmage.

On this play above, Fournette’s fullback led him into the hole and knocked the Alabama defender off balance enough for Fournette to get his pad level low and rush right through the line.

The Alabama defender comes off the block and hits Fournette below the waist for the tackle.

The last area of concern is Fournette’s lack of usage in the passing game. One feature of Shanahan’s offense is the heavy reliance on the running back to split out wide as a receiver or to catch passes out of the backfield.

As the aforementioned table notes, Fournette has 41 career receptions in three collegiate seasons. As Pro Football Focus notes, he has dropped eight of 48 catchable targets in his career.

This would easily be an area of concern for the 49ers, who were second in the league in dropped-pass rate last season and for an offense relying heavily on the running backs in the passing game in 2017.

Next: Making the case for Jordan Willis in the NFL Draft

For all these reasons, the 49ers should stay away from Fournette with their secon pick or even if they trade back.

This is not to say Fournette will eventually be a bust or isn’t a good running back. But he needs to play in an offense that is suited for his running style and that isn’t the zone-running scheme.