The start of the 2023 NFL free agency period hasn’t exactly brought fireworks for fans of most teams. The running back position had the potential to bring drama, but a few franchise tags significantly dampened the market.
We’ll continue to see playmakers be released from teams that underachieved in 2022 and need to create salary cap space. Two days after the start of free agency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially released Leonard Fournette. We’re breaking down three possible landing spots for Fournette as he enters the next phase of his career. Let’s dive into his best fits as he enters his seventh season in the NFL.
Leonard Fournette’s Free Agency Best Fits
Los Angeles Chargers Could Start Fournette
There’s no question about who the lead back is in Los Angeles. Austin Ekeler is coming off a great year, producing 1,637 yards and 18 touchdowns on 311 touches. Turning 28 this offseason, Ekeler has been given permission to seek a trade after not coming to a contract extension agreement.
He averaged just $6 million on his current deal. The Chargers should pay Ekeler but also add more competent depth behind him. Backups Joshua Kelley, Sony Michel, and Isaiah Spiller were awful in 2022, showing a lack of burst and vision. LA was fortunate that Ekeler played in all 17 games, or else their run game would’ve been completely worthless.
Adding Fournette as a high-end backup can bolster an offense that has expensive playmakers but lacks depth. Sure, he’s a luxury, but if the team is resistant to paying Ekeler then they may need to pivot.
Fournette can offer similar results as a receiver if he’s needed to fill in for any amount of time. If Ekeler is traded, Fournette and a draft pick could theoretically be a dynamic 1-2 punch if the Chargers’ offensive line performs better.
Buffalo Bills Add Fournette as RB2
The Buffalo Bills have poured resources into the backfield over the last few years but haven’t found someone truly capable of taking some of the pressure off Josh Allen yet.
Fournette isn’t a star producer, but he showed he’s capable of keeping an offense on schedule with consistent runs and adding value as a receiver. With Devin Singletary hitting free agency, Fournette can bring a more physical skill set to a backfield lacking identity.
The combination of Fournette, second-year back James Cook, and the veteran Nyheim Hines is at least more formidable than what they had in 2022. This would also allow Buffalo to surpass a first-round running back without fear of leaving a gaping hole at the position this coming season or breaking the bank for a star.
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Instead, signing Fournette would give the team flexibility to bolster the offensive line in the draft. Improving the interior blocking would benefit both Allen and Fournette. There’s also the cost efficiency of drafting a quality blocker vs. spending heavily on one in free agency compared to spending moderately on Fournette.
Though the two play differently, I have little doubt Fournette could produce similarly to Singletary’s 4.6-yard average as a rusher and 7.4 yards as a receiver. He’d benefit from the offense’s spacing while inflicting pain on defenses opting to fill the field with smaller DBs.
Cincinnati Bengals Replace Joe Mixon With Fournette
Joe Mixon, who produced only 814 yards on 3.9 yards per carry in 2022, looks like a potential cap casualty this offseason. The Bengals signed left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to a considerable $64 million deal, so spending on an RB who has seen his effectiveness decline may not be wise. Releasing Mixon would save $7.29 million of his $12.79 million cap hit in 2023.
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Bengals general manager Duke Tobin said, “I don’t have the answers,” in regards to whether Mixon will return to the team. With backup Samaje Perine signing in Denver, the Bengals need at least an RB2, if not an outright starter. Both Mixon and Fournette have shown capable of handling a high volume of touches, even if their average yards per opportunity is low.
If Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht is to be believed that Fournette has “several years left in him as a three-down back,” then the Bengals could get great value by signing him for half of Mixon’s cost.
The Bengals rarely ask their RBs to pass block, so when they’re on the field, they have to maximize their touches. It makes little sense to pay Mixon significantly more than what they could pay Fournette for the same production.