Leonard Fournette’s cut justifies SF 49ers angle on running backs

Leonard Fournette #27 of the Jacksonville Jaguars tackled by Brock Coyle #50 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Leonard Fournette #27 of the Jacksonville Jaguars tackled by Brock Coyle #50 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Jaguars waiving Leonard Fournette is the latest justification the SF 49ers handle their running back room exceptionally well.

For the first order of business, the SF 49ers shouldn’t and won’t go after former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette.

Fournette, of course, was waived by the Jags on Monday morning in a move quoted by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that Jacksonville’s head coach, Doug Marrone, “was trying to clean up the place.”

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were tasked with doing something similar when they took over the organization back in 2017, ultimately turning over roughly 70 percent of the roster they inherited from the previous season.

One of the methods of operation Shanahan and Lynch used, however, was to not spend high-value NFL Draft capital on running backs. Lynch and Shanahan could have used what turned out to be the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft on Fournette, instead opting to go with defensive end Solomon Thomas. But San Francisco made its pick, while the Jaguars made theirs.

Of course, Thomas never lived up to his own lofty expectations. But if there’s been a rule Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner have closely lived by, it’s not always necessary to invest high draft capital in running backs.

Interestingly enough, Shanahan told this to reporters back in 2017 when the SF 49ers were about to host Fournette and the Jaguars:

"It’s been proven that you can get guys (running backs) later. But that by no means makes it that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high. … A big-time running back, whether it’s Fournette; whether it’s Adrian Peterson, who was a top-10 pick; whether it was Terrell Davis in the sixth round; whether it’s David Johnson, I think was a third-rounder; Le’Veon Bell, I think was a second-rounder. All those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found in different places."

Four years later, it appears as if Shanahan’s approach was the correct one.

Now, this isn’t to say the Niners won’t invest in running backs. They’ll spend money on the position, particularly looking at the 2019 free-agent pickup of one of Shanahan’s former favorites with the Atlanta Falcons, Tevin Coleman. San Francisco also avoided a lengthy hardball standoff with its top rusher last year, Raheem Mostert, adjusting to his own contractual demands.

The SF 49ers went after, and landed Jerick McKinnon in free agency in 2018 and were arguably in the running for now-New York Jets tailback Le’Veon Bell.

But all those names have one thing in common: proven success at the NFL level.

This isn’t to say Fournette lacks that. In two of the three seasons he’s had a clean bill of health, he’s rushed for over 1,000 yards and has managed 3,640 yards from scrimmage with 19 combined touchdowns. That’s production.

Yet Jacksonville gave up prime draft capital to acquire it, only to have it flame out all too quickly for whatever the clean-out-the-house reasons.

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Like Shanahan said, the Niners aren’t immune to the idea of drafting a running back early. They just tend not to do it, relying more on those hidden-gem finds and well-established commodities brought in for specific reasons.

And it’s worked.