As far as “normal” training camps go, this has been a fairly quiet preseason for obvious reasons. That was until Leonard Fournette became an agent of chaos. After the Jaguars cut Fournette on the final day of August, he lasted just two days in free agency and signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers. Fournette’s deal with Tampa is worth up to $3.5M and he’ll receive $2M in base salary. With that type of money this late into the preseason, it is clear that Tampa is going to give Fournette a big role.
While this landing spot is absolutely perfect for Fournette, it throws a wrench into a backfield that was already confusing to begin with. HC Bruce Arians has hyped up Ronald Jones all offseason, but once again, this situation shows why blindly following coachspeak isn’t wise. The writing was on the wall. Despite Arians’ praise, the Bucs’ actual moves never really aligned with his words. Not only did they draft Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third-round in May -- Tampa signed LeSean McCoy and are still keen on giving him a role. Of course, this is after Jones failed to beat out Peyton Barber last year and was out-snapped on passing downs by Dare Ogunbowale.
Tampa is clearly out on Jones as a featured back.
We’ve been out on Fournette and Jones in fantasy all summer -- especially Fournette. Granted, Fournette only has a week to pick up the offense and earn Tom Brady’s trust, but the Bucs’ didn’t pay Fournette to not eventually make him their featured runner. As our own Greg Cosell said on the preseason wrap up livestream with John and Adam, Fournette is a volume back and he’s not just going to get 6-7 carries per game.
Just how much volume he gets is the question.
Last year, Fournette finished as the RB9 in fantasy points per game and was one the league’s true workhorse backs. He played on 89% of the Jaguars snaps (second-most among RBs), got 68% of the team’s carries (fifth-most), and saw 18% of their targets (third-most). Usage-wise, there was no comparison between Jones and Fournette. Even though he led the Bucs’ backfield in carries (172), Jones’ volume was a fraction of Fournette’s last year (37% snap rate; 42% of carries; and 7% of targets).
If the Buccaneers do go with a true bell-cow this year, Fournette is the easy choice over Jones because he’s done it before.
That said, Jones and Fournette have both not been very efficient ball carriers in their careers so far. According to Sports Info Solutions, Fournette has broken a tackle on just 11.9% of his carries in his career while Jones has done so on 11.8% of his totes. Austin Ekeler (26%) and Josh Jacobs (24%) led the league in broken tackle rate last season. Fournette and Jones’ success rate -- in terms of expected points added -- are equally bad as well. In their careers, Fournette’s rushing success rate is 37% while Jones is at 40%. For reference, both of these figures rank below league-average (41%).
While it’s clear that Tampa views Fournette as their lead back at this point -- they wouldn’t have signed him if he wasn’t going to lead the team in carries -- the biggest remaining questions that I have over this backfield is who they play on third-downs and who gets the lion’s share of the goal-line carries. The latter question is probably more pressing because it’ll determine how much upside Fournette really has.
Historically speaking, Tom Brady’s offenses have consistently generated plenty of lay-up scoring opportunities for his running backs. Over the last five years, the Patriots ranked 1st, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, and 5th in plays inside of the 10-yard line. With all of their weapons at receiver and tight end and an offensive line that may be the most underrated group in the league, the Bucs’ could seriously threaten to finish top-5 in touchdowns as a team in 2020. If Fournette takes the lion’s share of these calorie-rich red-zone opportunities, the path for him to be a weekly RB2 in fantasy is fairly clear.
Even though both backs have struggled to really create on their own consistently in their careers so far, we’re following the Bucs’ actual moves and Fournette’s past bell-cow usage and projecting him significantly higher than Jones. After a big staff debate, we settled on Fournette as our RB22 with 252 touches and Jones at RB43 with 158 touches.
I bet that Fournette’s ADP in drafts over Labor Day weekend settles in the fourth round… running back dead zone. That’s where I’m taking pass-catchers 95% of the time. Just like with Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Devin Singletary -- there is no way I can draft Fournette over the likes of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Calvin Ridley, and Tyler Lockett. All of those wideouts have low-end WR1 ceilings in PPR leagues. Frankly, I don’t think I could click Fournette’s name over Mark Andrews/Zach Ertz or that entire next tier of exciting young wideouts that includes A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, D.J. Chark, D.K. Metcalf, and Marquise Brown.
With the way I’m building teams this year -- running backs early and then hammering receivers in Round 3-6 -- someone else will likely be higher on Fournette than I am in the final week of fantasy drafts. Ronald Jones was never a part of my draft plan at his sixth-round ADP and I have even less interest now. There is just no upside with RoJo anymore and it’s why we have Zack Moss, Antonio Gibson, Matt Breida, and even Tevin Coleman ranked ahead of him.