Fantasy Football: Projecting Leonard Fournette and the Tampa Bay Backfield
The former fourth-overall pick signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is now in position to push Ronald Jones for the primary running back role for a new-look offense. Fournette's arrival also suggests a stifled start for third-round rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a questionable role for receiving back Dare Ogunbowale, and an uncertain roster position for veteran LeSean McCoy. (Update: Ogunbowale has been released.)
How exactly does Fournette fit in the offense? Let's dig in.
A big knock on Fournette is efficiency. It may or may not be warranted.
Last year, Fournette maintained a 4.35 yards-per-carry average behind a Jaguars line that ranked 27th in adjusted line yards, via Football Outsiders. In 2018, his per-carry average was 3.30 behind the 21st-ranked line.
As far as his more advanced data, it's hard to contextualize because he accounted for 265 of 309 (85.8%) running back carries last year for Jacksonville, leaving few carries from teammates in the same offense to examine.
Fournette's Rushing Success Rate -- the percentage of carries that increased expected scoring based on numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) model -- was merely 35.7%, shy of the league-wide running back average of 40.4%.
It's not really fair to say he was super inefficient.
Fournette will be entering a much better offensive situation than he had last year -- and especially than what he should've expected in 2020 with the Jaguars, whose win total is 4.5 on Super Bowl odds.
Last season, the Jaguars ranked 27th in adjusted offensive efficiency based on numberFire's metrics. Fournette's Jaguars have ranked 11th, 31st, and 27th in adjusted offense since he entered the NFL. We can't gloss over that when digging into his efficiency numbers.
The Bucs were just 23rd in 2019, but they've got a new quarterback in town: Tom Brady. Brady had led the New England Patriots to 10 consecutive top-six adjusted offensive seasons before the Pats ranked 19th a year ago.
That said Brady -- and Fournette -- will be playing behind the 13th-best offensive line with two of the NFL's most efficient receivers to utilize. Tampa Bay's win total is 9.5, implying a significant number of positive game scripts for Fournette to run in.
Here's the real test. Fournette can be in a pristine spot and be great from an efficiency standpoint, but if he's not getting enough work, he's not a valuable fantasy asset.
It's a really tough backfield to project for a few reasons.
The Buccaneers drafted Vaughn in the third round, early enough to suggest that he'd push Jones for early-down work. Ogunbowale seemed destined to have somewhat of a third-down role. With him gone, that work should belong to McCoy (who was expected to have a third-down role after the Fournette signing initially). And little of that has changed aside from bringing in Fournette, ostensibly to lead that group.
It's unrealistic for Fournette to replicate what he did last season -- with 85.8% of the running back carries and 77.5% of the running back targets. The workload will shrink, but the touchdown chances and efficiency should improve.
Fournette's initial projection at numberFire is 169.9 carries and 36.4 targets with 7.2 total touchdowns, good for the RB32 in half-PPR setups. Jones falls to the RB43 with 134.7-carry, 24.4-target, 5.5-touchdown projection. (Update: Jones is now the RB37 after Ogunbowale's release; McCoy is the RB68.)
The primary takeaway is that it's a great offense to be part of -- but not if a full committee is going to be implemented. Nothing suggests otherwise. The Buccaneers didn't stand pat with Jones, nor did they leap at Fournette until he was available. We can't be overconfident in how they distribute the work just yet.
Reading the tea leaves, Fournette's average draft cost should wind up noticeably higher than Jones' during the final stretch of drafts, making Jones the likely value in case he does hold the 1A role to Fournette's 1B, which is certainly not impossible. With the entire backfield healthy and if Fournette does hold the edge like our projections suggest, expect Fournette to perform as a borderline RB2/RB3 with Jones being a flex candidate in a good offense.
As for backs with league-winning upside, I'd rather take my chances on a backfield without four to five potential rushers who are still on a team with three red zone threats in the form of Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and Chris Godwin.