JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Leonard Fournette had one of the best seasons by a rookie running back in Jacksonville Jaguars history. His task in 2018 is to do something that two of the best backs the team has had were unable to do: improve on his rookie season.
Fournette’s 1,040 yards rushing was the second-most by a rookie in Jaguars history — trailing only Fred Taylor’s 1,223 yards in 1998 — and he reached that total despite missing three games. Topping that could be hard, but as the Jaguars’ clear No. 1 back, Fournette has an advantage that Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t.
The Jaguars released Chris Ivory last week, and T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant and fullback Tommy Bohanon are the only other backs on the active roster who have carried the ball in a game. Barring injury, Fournette is pretty much a lock to hit 250 carries and most likely will top the 268 he had in 2017.
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But if Fournette is going to at least equal his rookie season, there are three things he must do.
Stay healthy: Fournette missed two games because of injury (he was benched for the other because of disciplinary reasons) and battled through a right ankle sprain for almost the entire second half of the season. He topped 69 rushing yards just two times and twice ran for fewer than 35 yards on double-digit carries during those final seven games.
Fournette battled a left ankle injury in his final season at LSU, so he hasn’t played a completely healthy season since 2015.
Have a better understanding of the offense: Fournette said late in the season that his study habits and knowledge of the offense had improved significantly from the early part of the season. It was evident throughout the season that he wasn’t completely sure of what he was supposed to do at times because quarterback Blake Bortles repeatedly had to line him up correctly in the backfield.
See the field better: Fournette is a big (6 feet, 228 pounds), physical back and thrives on contact. Sometimes that cost him additional yards, though, because he seemed reluctant to bounce things outside or cut back instead of just pounding the ball into the line of scrimmage.
There also were times when he missed the hole or tried a spin move that resulted in his turning into the pursuit.
This is related to his transition to the NFL. Everything he tried at LSU worked because he was more talented than the majority of defensive players he faced. He has to adjust his style a bit, especially in terms of the amount of contact he gets, and that takes time.
A year in the offseason conditioning program and going through organized team activities and minicamp in the same offense should help Fournette with all three of those areas. Even so, it’s tough for backs to repeat a 1,000-yard season.
Taylor ran for 14 touchdowns and caught 44 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns in addition to those 1,223 yards during his rookie campaign. A hamstring injury cost him six games the following season, and he finished with nearly 500 fewer rushing yards and caught 34 fewer passes while splitting time with James Stewart.
Jones-Drew ran for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 46 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in 2006. His stats didn’t dip significantly — he ran for 173 fewer yards and four fewer touchdowns (on one more carry than he had in ’06) and caught six fewer passes — and that’s mainly because Taylor had his only Pro Bowl season (1,202 yards rushing) and he was sharing time.
Taylor and Jones-Drew went on to become the top two rushers in franchise history. Until Fournette, they were the only Jaguars players to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Fournette has gotten off to a good start, but he needs to become a more consistent player in 2018 and beyond to be grouped with those two.,