There’s a fascinating debate among fans and in NFL circles about college football players as future pro prospects and whether they should make business decisions about their future. In other words, is it understandable for a player to shut it down to protect his draft stock?
LSU fans, for instance, obviously want running back Leonard Fournette to play in a Tigers season that is slipping away. But people in the NFL likely would understand if the talented running back sat for fear of further injury.
Fournette suffered an ankle injury during LSU’s scrimmage in mid-August and hasn’t been in peak form this season. He later suffered a knee contusion in the opening-game loss to Wisconsin.
Should he even bother? Is there anything to gain in what appears to be a lost season in the Bayou?
Fournette could be the first back selected in the 2017 NFL draft and appears to be a strong first-round possibility regardless, despite playing a position that pro teams will often wait to pick. After all, shelf lives are shorter at running back than almost any other position, and this remains a pass-first NFL. Exacerbating the injury further could affect Fournette’s status — especially with 2017 appearing to be an extremely strong crop of RB prospects that appear to come in all different shapes, sizes and skills.
UCLA linebacker Myles Jack made a business decision on his knee a year ago three games into the Bruins’ season, immediately withdrawing from school and focusing on his NFL career once he got hurt with what some felt might not have been a season-ending injury under normal circumstances. Jack was not docked by scouts for this; the reason he fell to the upper part of Round 2 was because of the health of that knee. Imagine if Jack had tried to return later in the 2015 college season and play through the injury. He might have done further damage and slipped even farther.
Fournette repeatedly has said he plans to keep playing and isn’t thinking about shutting it down early. He’s protected, financially speaking, by two separate $10 million insurance policies — one covers any career-ending injury he might suffer and the other is a loss-of-value policy, similar to one Jack took out on himself — that protects Fournette from sliding from his projected draft spot.
LSU is at a crossroads following the firing of head coach Les Miles, replaced by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. In his first news conference after the move, Orgeron indicated that there would be a new offensive focus — especially after he reportedly fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, too — that hinted at the Tigers running the ball less and throwing more.
“Without giving out a scouting report for our next opponent, we’re going to spread the ball around a little bit. Gonna change the style of play,” Orgeron said. “There’s a lot of things on offense we’ve done well; running the football. We’re going to have a different passing game. Be more creative. Find ways the quarterback can get the ball down the field.”
Does that sound like a man who plans to feature Fournette extensively in a role that might help boost his draft stock? Right now, the banged-up running back is listed as a game-time decision for Saturday against Mizzou.
Apples to oranges, but when Orgeron took over as USC’s interim head coach in 2012, he ran the ball 35.4 times per game during his tenure — a decrease of nearly five carries per game over what fired coach Lane Kiffin had called the first five games of that season — and that was with the Trojans having current Cleveland Browns starter Cody Kessler at QB.
Fournette was the runaway Heisman Trophy favorite prior to LSU’s loss against Alabama last season, averaging 25 carries per game and 6.5 yards per carry in 2015. Those numbers have fallen slightly to 22.3 and 5.8, respectively, in three games this season (he sat out against Jacksonville State). It sounds like, even independent of Fournette’s health, that he could be in line for even fewer carries if he tries to gut it out. The Tigers also have increasingly sprinkled in more of sophomore back Derrius Guice, who is averaging 7.3 carries per game and 8.2 yards per carry.
Would NFL teams care if Fournette punted on the season? If they felt there was enough concern about his ankle or knee, likely not. Fournette was gutting his way through the loss at Auburn, being knocked out of the game with injury but quickly reentering in a circumstance where some backs might have sat out. It doesn’t appear that his toughness is in question, and scouts have noticed that.
Three NFL scouts and scouting directors told us by text this week that they weren’t concerned. Noted one: “We keep track of pitch counts for backs pretty closely.” Another: “The bottom line will be [his] medicals, and then his [workout] testing.”
The point: Fewer carries for Fournette prior to entering the NFL would not be a bad thing. Of the running backs selected in the top 50 picks over the past five drafts, none had more college carries than Le’Veon Bell’s 671. Here they are sorted by rushing attempts, with where Fournette stands currently:
Fournette, who has averaged 19.8 carries per game in college, would surpass Bell at that rate (which is still below his reduced workload this season) if he plays six more college games. LSU has eight more regular-season games scheduled, plus a bowl game if it qualifies.
As the weather starts getting colder and the voices in Fournette’s ear start getting louder about his NFL future, it will be interesting to see how he and the team manage his workload. That is why him sitting out might not be the worst business decision he could make.
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