Was declining Leonard Fournette’s fifth-year option the right move for Jacksonville?

Was it in Jacksonville's best interest to decline Fournette's fifth-year option? Maybe analytics can tell us more.

On May 1, 2020, the Jacksonville Jaguars declined running back Leonard Fournette’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The move did not come as a surprise as the Jaguars have shipped off quite a few players. However, in the past few days, general manager David Caldwell has said that Fournette is a part of the franchise’s future plan.

There were some minor trade talks on the second day of the 2020 NFL Draft, but nothing ever materialized. The Jaguars are back in rebuild mode after having to dismantle its team from 2017, which made it’s deepest postseason run since the 1999 season. Former quarterback Blake Bortles is long-gone, and the heir apparent, Super Bowl champion Nick Foles, was sent to the Chicago Bears this offseason. The Jaguars also sent cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Los Angeles Rams for two first-round picks, one in 2020 and one in 2021.

Currently, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has been very vocal on social media about his desire to be traded out of Jacksonville. As of right now, the plan is for the Jaguars to start the season with second-year signal-caller Gardner Minshew under center. They shored up some defensive needs in the first round of the draft, while also addressing the offense selecting Laviska Shenault with their second-round pick.

However, in the backfield, there were few changes. Jacksonville signed Chris Thompson, reuniting him with former Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden who is now Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator, and that’s it. Thompson was quite the threat catching passes out of the backfield during his time in Washington. However, Fournette is coming off of a career-high in receiving after catching 76 passes for 552 yards in 2019.

Behind them are Ryquell Armstead and Devine Ozigbo, who provide minimal experience in the league so far. Fournette has posted some impressive Offensive Share Metric numbers over his three years in the league, ranking as a top ten running back every season. Was declining Fournette’s fifth-year option the best idea?

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Can the Jaguars lean on Fournette in 2020?

Fournette played 15 games in 2019, missing the season finale due to a neck strain. He earned an OSM score in 14 games this season and received an overall grade of 18.23. This was just .2 of a point less than his overall score in 2018 when he earned an 18.49. But this is much less than his career-high overall OSM score, which he set his rookie season at 24.73, he was the 3rd highest rated RB in 2017.

But while his OSM score is decreasing, his yards production increased from 2017 to 2019. Fournette only played eight games, but in 2017 he played in 13 games and rushed 268 times for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2019, he had 265 carries resulting in 1,152 yards, and his highest yards per carry average at 4.3 yards; however, he only found the endzone three times. He runs hard and is not afraid to take on defenders.

But what is causing Fournette’s OSM score to drop? When comparing his rookie campaign to this past season on the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, there was a noticeable dip in one area. In 2017, Fournette had the second-fastest average time behind the line of scrimmage (TLOS) at 2.59 seconds. The 2019 season saw Fournette slow up just a bit with getting past the line of scrimmage in 2.81 seconds on average. It’s just over two-tenths of a second, but those tenths drop Fournette to the 18th fastest TLOS.

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There was also a significant drop in the amount of time he saw eight or more defenders in the box at the snap on every play from 2017 to 2019. In 2017 both former Jacksonville running back Chris Ivory and Fournette saw heavy pressure from the defense, the latter having eight or more in the box 48.51% of the time, the fifth-highest percentage in the league.

Fast forward to 2019, and that percentage drops over 15% to having eight or more defenders present 31.7% of the time. Still somewhat high of a mark as it’s the 10th highest overall, but this means that Fournette had seven defenders or less in the box for just over two-thirds of his snaps in 2019.

Fournette has shown he can carry a workload two out of his three seasons in the league. However, the injury bug has gotten him for at least one game every season. With some veteran help from Thompson and the hope of more maturation for Minshew, this offense might not be as bad as one would think, especially if Fournette can improve upon last seasons’ performance.

While there has been a drop-off, the rate at which they could have kept Fournette with the fifth-year option would have been much cheaper than a new deal. This signals that the Jaguars might be ready to move on from Fournette and follow the trend of letting RBs test the waters of free agency after their rookie contract expires. Is it the right move, not in my mind, but Fournette’s performance this season will be the decision-maker of Fournette’s long-term status in Jacksonville.