Leonard Fournette’s Twitter background shows him Photoshopped onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
It’s hyperbole, but perhaps not by much. When Fournette arrived at LSU in 2014, he did so as the highest-ranked recruit in program history, a player who was heralded as the second coming of Adrian Peterson. He produced highlights that were celestial, and his NFL prospects seemed divine. In 2017, executive vice president Tom Coughlin descended from the football heavens to fix the Jacksonville Jaguars, a franchise he was present for at creation. As Coughlin set about building the Jags, the first draft pick he made was Fournette at no. 4. If Coughlin would have grown his hair out, the above image would be Jacksonville’s Genesis.
This week was the flood. The Jaguars cut Fournette on Monday, the latest part of the organization’s purge that also saw it part with Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell this offseason as well as cornerback Jalen Ramsey last season. Less than three years removed from a berth in the AFC championship game, Jacksonville has closed the chapter on an era. Fournette has closed a personal era too, finishing his time with the Jags with 2,631 rushing yards on 666 carries (a concerning number). The lasting memory of his tenure will be the time that he waved on Steelers safety Mike Mitchell before delivering a punishing hit.
For Fournette, Monday’s news marks the low point in a thoroughly underwhelming pro career to date. He has an NFL average of 4.0 yards per carry, including 3.7 in his first two seasons, abysmal by the standards of a first-round pick, let alone a top-five one. But Fournette also played behind a bad offensive line. Last year, he ranked 43rd of 47 qualified running backs in yards before contact (1.3 per carry), but tied for third among those 47 in yards after contact (3.0). Still just 25, his value has diminished; Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone recently said the team couldn’t even get a sixth-rounder in return for Fournette when it dangled the running back in a trade. Perhaps Fournette would be a fit in Washington (which has a weak backfield), Philadelphia (where running back Miles Sanders is week-to-week), or Seattle (where he’d represent an upgrade over backup Carlos Hyde).
For the Jaguars, the outlook may be even bleaker. Fournette wasn’t just any draft bust; he’s the player who was taken over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, a decision the team made primarily because it continued to believe in Blake Bortles. While the Bears are regularly the butt of jokes for drafting Mitchell Trubisky before Mahomes and Watson in 2017, the Jaguars came out even worse. They avoided taking a quarterback altogether in favor of a running back and then didn’t keep him for his full rookie contract. Coupled with Sunday’s decision to trade Ngakoue—who racked up 29.5 sacks over the past three seasons before publicly vowing to never play for the organization again—the Fournette news serves as a reminder of Jacksonville’s myriad missteps ... and the potential of what could have been.
On January 21, 2018, in what may go down as a football anomaly or a collective fever dream, the Jaguars clung to a 20-10 lead over the Patriots midway through the fourth quarter of the AFC title game. This really happened; there is video footage and everything. Jacksonville rode an elite defense to an AFC South division title and a playoff spot, and was a questionable A.J. Bouye pass interference penalty away from locking down the win and going on to play the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Jags lost largely because of how inept Bortles was, and the team disintegrated afterward.
The Jaguars have since traded away five key defenders from that 2017 roster: cornerbacks Ramsey and Bouye and defensive ends Ngakoue, Campbell, and Dante Fowler Jr. Safety Tashaun Gipson and defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson, formerly of the most expensive defensive line in NFL history, have been released. Jacksonville held on to Bortles for one more season in 2018, somehow even giving him a contract extension before cutting him. It then signed Nick Foles to a massive contract, realized that was a mistake, and traded Foles away. It will now roll into this fall behind starting quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew’s mustache is here to stay, but the team that won the division in 2017 is all but gone.
here's a list of the 2017 AFC South Division Champion Jaguars players still on the team pic.twitter.com/RwdWYw213j— madebytim (@MadeByTim) August 31, 2020
That team disintegrated in large part due to Coughlin, whose failed leadership led to his firing last December. Coughlin tried to bring his hardass coaching style to the front office, but front-office execs don’t have the day-to-day contact with players that builds relationships and makes that palatable, so the Jags just hated him. Coughlin fined Fournette $99,000 for sitting on the bench in a 2018 game. (Fournette appealed the fine to the league and won.) A quarter of the grievances the NFLPA filed in 2018 and 2019 combined were against the Jaguars, and the union went so far as to send a letter to NFL players suggesting they not sign with the Jags in free agency.
The problems went beyond that. The front office has failed to hit on top draft picks for years. Jacksonville was the worst drafting team in the league before Coughlin took over as GM: The Jaguars had six top-five picks from 2013 to 2017, and used them on one elite player who was later traded (Ramsey), one player who was shipped out of town for third- and fifth-round picks (Dante Fowler Jr.), one player who was ultimately released (Fournette), and three legendary busts (Justin Blackmon, Luke Joeckel, and Bortles). That list doesn’t even account for the team’s decision to take Blaine Gabbert with the no. 10 pick in 2010, or its move to take a punter before Russell Wilson in the 2012 third round. In the 10 drafts before Fournette was picked in 2017, the Jaguars selected in the top 10 every time. Of those 10 picks, eight played four years or fewer for the team. (The exceptions are Bortles and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu.)
Jacksonville now appears to be following the Dolphins’ blueprint from last year: Tear the team to the studs, accumulate draft picks, and treat this season as a long tryout for next year’s team. Given the Jags’ recent history, that’s cause for concern. Fournette never took them to the promised land, and after falling just short the team’s very foundation fell apart. But Fournette isn’t responsible for failing to deliver on an impossible expectation. Until Jacksonville can scout good players and build an organization those good players want to work for, the Jaguars will continue to rest on Sundays.