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Yards Created: Leonard Fournette

Yards Created: Leonard Fournette

After a long NFL regular season, it is officially time to switch gears and focus on the upcoming NFL Draft.

With the offseason on the horizon, I am embarking on a lengthy, fun, and significant process called Yards Created. If you’re new or need a refresher on what Yards Created is all about, I’d highly encourage you to read my original explanation of the entire process from April 2016. In that debut article on C.J. Prosise, I go into detail about how I chart running backs, why this data can be helpful, and some of the long-term goals of Yards Created.

To be completely transparent, the early outlook on the 2016 Yards Created data yielded some major hits but it also had a few misses. Ezekiel Elliott was the poster child of Yards Created last year, but I was too lukewarm on Jordan Howard. After some reflection, I overlooked Howard’s ability to do everything pretty well and focused too closely on a few negative data points. As someone that is still relatively new to evaluating, it is easy to overlook players that aren’t extraordinary at first glance, but do almost everything more than adequately. You can re-read the entire breakdown for the 2016 class here.

We’re on to 2017, though.

Leonard Fournette and Looking Forward

One of the first things I did this offseason is create a list of college running backs I was most interested in charting first. Leonard Fournette was the easy opening choice. Standing 6’1” and weighing 240lbs, Fournette is already in a class of his own in terms of running back size. Adrian Peterson, Latavius Murray, Derrick Henry, and DeMarco Murray are all examples of rushers that stand over 6-feet tall, weigh over 210lbs, and will assuredly draw strictly size-related comparisons to Fournette.

There is always a logical bridge that fans, evaluators, and even general managers feel the need to make when connecting and comparing prospects to one another. As humans, we try to fit square pegs into round holes and leap to unfounded conclusions while latching onto one or two data points. I’ll be the first to admit I have made this mistake in the past. However, much like Derrick Henry last year, I am positive Fournette will garner a wide range of opinions that exists on multiple poles.

Much like Henry, too, I am not sure there is an objective comparison for Fournette’s game. Certain prospects like Jadeveon Clowney, Calvin Johnson, and Peterson are physical freaks that evaluators have a hard time explaining. However, Yards Created is not about getting bogged down on Narrative Street. We’ll let Fournette’s data speak for itself.

Let’s dive in.

Games Sampled

Game

Att.

RuYds

YPC

RuTD

Rec

ReYD

YPR

ReTD

Wisconsin

23

138

6

0

3

38

12.7

0

Miss. St

28

147

5.3

2

4

27

6.8

0

Ole Miss

16

284

17.8

3

3

25

8.3

0

Alabama

17

35

2.1

0

1

8

8

0

Arkansas

17

98

5.8

3

2

44

22

0

 

Leonard Fournette had an injury-plagued 2016 season, but there is still a lot to like.Before we get to the data, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Fournette missed time in the 2016 season in August, November, and December because of a balky ankle. Due to the ailment, Fournette ended up playing in just seven games in 2016, six of which were full contests. Fournette left a game against Florida early and did not return to the field last season.

Needless to say, all of Fournette’s data in his Yards Created sample come from five of the first six contests of the season, but it is still unknown how healthy Fournette actually was during these games. Fournette’s ankle issues are well dated prior to the 2016 season and almost certainly impacted his play in his six “healthy” contests during the 2016 regular season.

With that disclaimer out of the way, there is no denying Fournette’s career statistics at LSU are eye-popping. In 28 career games where Fournette received double-digit carries, he averaged 133.1 rushing yards per game. In 2015 alone, Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards, which was the 34th-best single season all-time. What’s more, Fournette finished his LSU career with 10 games of 150-plus rushing yards and one or more touchdowns. From a pure counting-stats perspective, Fournette is an elite prospect.

Of course, we have to dig much deeper than traditional stats.

LSU’s Yards Blocked and Leonard Fournette’s Yards Created

Per Att. Data

Yards Blocked/Att.

Yards Created/Att.

Total Attempts: 99

1.06

5.83

Sample Average

1.07

4.85

 

Notably, Fournette’s Yards Created on a per attempt basis blasts off of the page. Sans Kenyan Drake’s tiny sample (37 carries), Fournette is third only to Ezekiel Elliott (5.98 YC per attempt) and Joe Mixon (6.75 YC/Att.) in my database of finished prospects. 

Before we get a little more nuanced with Fournette’s data, I need to mention that almost all of Fournette’s Yards Created production came against teams not named “Alabama.” The Crimson Tide’s unreal front-seven stuffed Fournette for two or fewer Yards Created on 14 of his 17 rushes.

On a more positive note, despite LSU’s run-blocking offensive line that finished 63rd-of-128 in FootballOutsiders’ Stuff Rate (percentage of carries that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage), Fournette finished a full yard above the sample average in Yards Created per rush attempt. Despite clearly being able to create yards on his own on the surface, there is still a lot to unpack in Fournette’s game.

Run Type Data

Inside

Outside

Counter

Toss

Other

68.7%

14.1%

0.0%

17.2%

0.0%

 

Fournette primarily ran out of I-formation and single-back sets:

Shotgun/Pistol

Under Center

14.14%

85.86%

 

There are two more data points that jump out immediately: Fournette’s high percentage of toss (or sweep) plays (17.2%) and the fact that he primarily ran with the quarterback under center (85.7%).

First of all, the power-toss has been a staple in LSU’s running game for a number of years. To best employ Fournette’s uncanny acceleration and start/stop burst, LSU essentially ran the same zone and gap blocking schemes that every team in college football utilizes, except they ran a ton tosses with these concepts. In fact, the average college team runs toss plays on just 4.1% of their rush attempts.The toss play was an LSU staple and a run on which Fournette was very successful. Can that success translate to the NFL?

Nonetheless, LSU’s power-toss is simply exceptional and opposing defenses could not stop it.

On toss plays alone, Fournette averaged an otherworldly 11.62 Yards Created per attempt. For even more background, Fournette ripped off 4.46 YC/attempt on inside carries and 5.46 YC/attempt on outside carries. Both of those figures are near Yards Created’s collegiate averages. Because of LSU’s unique offensive makeup — the Tigers’ offensive line generated 1.76 yards blocked on toss plays — there are not many examples of such dominance on one run type that jump to mind. 

To be clear, Fournette has apparent and sudden open-field speed that is wholly rare. It should be no surprise that 34.2% of his cumulative Yards Created came on LSU’s dominant power-toss plays. However, I have to caution here that NFL defenders, obviously, are much faster at the next level. Pro teams simply don’t use power-toss plays as a foundation of their offense like LSU. Even with the Dallas Cowboys’ run-first mentality and fantastic offensive line they only ran 18 toss-plays with Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, per Marcus Mosher.

Defenders in the Box

7 or fewer

8 In Box

9 or more In Box

Avg. In Box

33.3%

44.4%

22.2%

7.82

 

Now we’re on to the newest addition to Yards Created. This upcoming year — and for all future Yards Created endeavors — I am going to chart each running backs’ data while recording the number of defenders inside of the tackle box at a time. With this data, I fully believe it will offer rich context and more insight on how a certain rusher succeeds on the field. Offensive personnel certainly influences the number of defenders opposing teams put in the box, along with their own schematic requirements, but simply knowing how rushers create their yards on multiple fronts should be very powerful.

Because this is new territory for me, I am going to have to take the easy way out for now. I don’t have any points of reference with Fournette specifically or for this data as a whole. We’ll have to put a bookmark on splitting out Yards Created by defenders in the box until I start compiling more data on the class. This section will be a key tenant in the final breakdown for the entire class before the draft in late-April.

Without any barometers, Fournette faced at least eight defenders in the box on the majority of his totes (66.7%) in his Yards Created sample. Not surprisingly, Fournette created more yards on a per attempt basis when there were seven or fewer defenders in the box:

Yards Blocked/Att. 7 or Fewer

Yards Created/Att. 7 or Fewer

YB/Att. 8 or More

YC/Att. 8 or More

1.35

6.53

0.92

5.48

 

Again, this data will be a lot more compelling when I finish charting all of the other running backs in the 2017 draft class.

Missed Tackles Forced (Rushing)

MT Power/Att.

MT Elusiveness/Att.

MT Speed/Att.

0.101

0.040

0.111

 

And here is the missed tackle data in the receiving game and on a per opportunity (attempts plus targets) basis:

Missed Tackles Forced (Receiving and per opportunity)

MT Power/Tgt

MT Elusive/Tgt

MT Speed/Tgt

MT/Opp.

0.235

0.059

0.059

0.267

 

From a high-level view, Fournette struggled to make defenders miss in his Yards Created sample. In fact, Fournette forced the fewest amount of missed tackles per rush attempt (0.252) than any back I have charted in my database. For perspective, the average college running back causes 0.342 missed tackles per rush attempt, or forces at least one defender to miss on 34.2% of his rushes.

There is quite a bit to unpack here.

I am not quite sure to what extent Fournette’s nagging ankle injury caused his footwork to suffer during the 2016 season, but it is evident in the data that he struggled to make defenders miss with elusiveness and lateral agility. Indeed, Fournette forced just 0.04 missed tackles via elusiveness, which is the second-lowest data point in the Yards Created database. As a possible saving grace, only Jordan Howard forced fewer defenders to miss via elusiveness in his sample (0.03) in 2016.Fournette's natural power will be one of his most appealing traits for scouts.

Even at 100 percent health at the next level, Fournette may struggle to be a quick-twitch back who cracks defenders’ ankles with short-area agility. That may not matter, though. Fournette is extremely explosive and immensely gifted as a runner. He can and will run through slighter defenders at almost every opportunity. We all remember what happened to that one unfortunate Ole Miss defender.

Because LSU is a power-heavy program that utilizes I-formation and single-back sets aplenty, Fournette destroyed first- and second-level defenders with pure power and speed on every play. Almost to his detriment at times, Fournette is a violent runner and has genuinely freakish short-area burst for a back wielding a 230-plus pound frame. In an uncanny way, it does not take long at all for Fournette to hit his sixth gear. In fact, only 5’10”, 190lbs Tyler Ervin forced more missed tackles on his rush attempts (0.12) with sheer speed than Fournette (0.111) in his collegiate sample. (For what it is worth, Ervin posted a 95th percentile 40-yard dash at last year’s combine).

Due to an ankle injury that annoyed him from August until November and due to LSU’s all-power scheme, I am willing to give Fournette a pass for his lowly missed tackle data. Before we get bogged down in defenders missed, there are too many other glaring positives in Fournette’s game that will immediately transfer to the next level.

In this case, brute power and breakaway speed trumps elusiveness. Fournette attacks and does not cower.

Route Run Data

Routes/G

Targets/G

Yards Gained/Route

aDOT

Backfield%

Split Wide%

6.0

3.4

4.73 yards

2.56

90%

10%

 

While he is not known for his receiving skills, I came away quietly impressed with Fournette’s comfort-level catching passes out of the backfield. Fournette’s route tree at LSU wasn’t particularly diverse — 73% of his routes were check and releases, flats, or outside breaking routes — but he is more than capable of working a three-down job. Even though very few backs in the NFL actually play all three downs, I’m convinced that Fournette genuinely improved as a receiver year over year while at LSU.

For example, in 2015 Fournette caught just 1.5 passes for 19.5 receiving yards per day in 12 total games played. In 2016, that changed quite a bit. Excluding the game he left early in against Florida, Fournette hauled in 2.5 receptions for 24.3 yards per game in 2016 and he caught two or more passes in five of six fully healthy games. In the prior season, Fournette caught 2-plus passes in just four of 12 games.

More importantly, Fournette demonstrated strong efficiency in a moderately voluminous role as far as collegiate standards go. In fact, Fournette (4.73 yards gained per route run) is sixth among all running backs over the past two years. The sample average is 3.57 yards gained per route run.

Still, Fournette deserves credit for improving as a receiver from his sophomore to his junior year. Like almost every back coming out of college, Fournette has room to polish his receiving acumen. Fournette likely won’t become a receiving dynamo like Gio Bernard in the NFL, but according to the data, he is an underrated receiver.

Pass Protection Execution (PPE)

Pass Pro Att.

Pass Pro Execution%

15

86.7%

 

As far as receiving work and pass protection goes, Fournette is certainly not a stiff in the passing game.

Fournette’s PPE (pass protection execution) is well above the collegiate average (78%) for Yards Created. Because of his well-versed physicality, Fournette’s aggressive playing style pays ultimate dividends when protecting the quarterback is concerned. In his five game sample, Fournette allowed just two total pressures and showed a natural ability to square up to defenders plus read and understand blitz assignments on passing downs. Fournette’s PPE in his Yards Created sample is the fourth-best I have tracked to-date.

Like one could imagine, a running back with a frame like Fournette’s should be a stonewall. The LSU product did not disappoint in pass protection.

Fournette’s Future

There is no doubt Fournette will be a fairly divisive prospect. He will surely get criticized for “running upright”, he’ll be demeaned for lacking wiggle in short areas, and he’ll be knocked for not having A-plus receiving skills. While each case against Fournette is valid, it misses the broader point.

The catalog of running backs that compare to Fournette’s running style is very small. The key takeaway here is that the relative uncertainty surrounding Fournette’s habits should not belittle or make him a lesser prospect because of his dissimilarities relative to other players. The former-Tiger possesses an aggression on the field that is absolutely astonishing. Yards Created picked up on Fournette’s dynamism. Even while Fournette was playing hurt in 2016, he went out and posted one of the single best Yards Created per attempt scores in my books.

Fournette is sure to have his detractors — both in media and with teams — leading up to the draft. Be that as it may, Leonard Fournette possesses unparalleled power, speed, and burst for a running back of his proportions. He is unequivocally a unique talent. 

Graham Barfield
Senior Analyst

Graham is a senior analyst for Fantasy Guru and works closely with statistics to produce quanitative analysis for complementary weekly content. He will be appearing before the season and during the season on The Fantasy Guru Podcast with John Hansen and Joe Dolan. Be sure to follow Graham on Twitter at @GrahamBarfield.

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