Many five-star prep prospects fail to live up to the immense hype recruiting analysts lavish on them. Not Leonard Fournette. In fact, he might have exceeded expectations, becoming one of the best runners in SEC history. With the rock-solid back drawing comparisons to Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson as a budding superstar at the position, I couldn't wait to pop in the tape to see if the LSU standout really has the goods to be a transcendent star at the next level. After taking some time to review the footage and talk to some folks, here's the book on Fournette:
What I'm hearing
"Fournette is special. He is an old-school runner with strength and power. He runs through contact but also shows exceptional balance. Defenders have a tough time knocking him off his pins. ... I think he is the perfect grinder to feature in a power offense. He loves the dirty work between the tackles." -- NFC scout
"He's the real deal. He's a big, physical runner with quick enough feet to make people miss. Plus, he has some juice to run away from defenders. ... He was banged-up last season but still put some spectacular runs on tape. I think he's going to be a star in our league." -- NFC national scout
"You don't see guys with Fournette's size/speed combination. He's a rare, rare talent. ... He's the most talented runner to come out since Adrian Peterson." -- AFC executive
"Fournette is a beast. Guys like him don't come out very often." -- NFC personnel executive
What I'm seeing
Fournette is the most talented running back prospect to enter the league since Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in 2007. (Yes, including Ezekiel Elliott -- I believe Fournette is a more physically imposing, traditional bell-cow back.) While I know these Peterson statements have been uttered more than a few times since the LSU standout stepped onto the scene as a heralded five-star recruit out of New Orleans, there's no denying his special qualities as an old-school runner with a violent style and ballet dancer's body control.
Checking in at 6-foot, 240 pounds with 4.51 speed, Fournette is a steaming locomotive with the ball in his hands. He runs through defenders in the hole with a combination of violence and physicality that's rarely seen in today's game, yet he also exhibits nimble feet and surprising shiftiness for a big back. Despite his penchant for finishing off runs with a vicious stiff-arm or savage shoulder boom, Fournette exhibits the pitter-pat, burst and acceleration to take it the distance when he hits the second level. As a rugged runner adept at doing damage on an assortment of downhill runs (powers, isolations and off-tackle tosses), Fournette's combination of speed, power and explosiveness makes him the ideal workhorse runner in a throwback system.
As a receiver, Fournette hasn't had many opportunities to showcase his skills -- but he's flashed soft hands when his number has been called on screens and swings. He plucks the ball with ease and has enough wiggle to make defenders miss in the open field. Although he is certainly not an A-level route runner, Fournette has the potential to snag 25-30 balls a season as a solid receiving option on flats, swings and checkdowns in play-action concepts.
From a critical standpoint, Fournette is a questionable blocker in pass protection. He doesn't give great effort and his shoddy technique has led to some poor displays on tape. Defenders race past Fournette with little resistance, and it is clear he doesn't bring maximum fight or intensity to his pass-blocking attempts. Although his flaws are correctable, the lackluster approach raises some concerns about his willingness to be an all-time great in all aspects of the position. If he fails to improve as a blocker early in his career, Fournette could have a tough time carving out a role as a three-down player in some offenses.
In addition, Fournette's heavy workload and injury history as a collegian could lead to questions about his durability at the next level. The LSU standout spent most of his junior campaign nursing a variety of lower-leg injuries and didn't necessarily dominate the SEC as he had in previous years. Not to mention, he missed a handful of games last fall and didn't participate in the bowl (though Fournette says that wasn't his decision). Executives and decision makers will closely examine his résumé to see if he can be counted on to handle the responsibilities of being a franchise back for a team willing to pin its championship aspirations on his play.
Overall, Fournette is a potential star at the position as an old-school bruiser with big-time game. He exhibits all of the qualities coaches covet in throwback runners (speed, power, toughness and home-run ability), but he also flashes the attitude and leadership skills to be a game-changer as a franchise back. With teams looking for transcendent stars at the top of the draft, the LSU standout deserves consideration as a top-five pick, based on his exceptional talents as a downhill runner.
As a workhorse runner for the Tigers from the time he stepped onto the field at Death Valley, Fournette topped the 1,000-yard mark in two of his three seasons -- including a 1,953-yard, 22-touchdown effort in 2015. He was a one-man show in that electric sophomore season. Studying Fournette's work on tape, his spectacularly violent running style looks like it was pulled directly from an Adrian Peterson highlight reel of his early days in Minnesota.
While the similarities to No. 28 are apparent when it comes to his physicality and toughness with the ball, Fournette also shows a combination of balance, burst and body control in the hole that is uncommon for big backs. Whether it is making a free defender miss with a slick spin move or bouncing outside following a nifty jump cut, Fournette flashes the same mix of wiggle and power that's made Peterson a first-team All-Pro in four different seasons. Considering the success Peterson has enjoyed over the past decade, it is easy to envision Fournette as a perennial Pro Bowler and the next member of the 2,000-yard club.
Where he should be picked
At a time when many believe the running back position has been marginalized, Fournette could make it two years in a row that an RB comes off the board as a top-five pick. The talent is certainly worthy of consideration at the top of the board. Looking at possible teams that could be inclined to make Fournette a franchise back, I believe he will start generating interest at pick No. 4 (Jacksonville Jaguars) and come off the board no later than pick No. 8 (Carolina Panthers). With the New York Jets (No. 6 overall) also listed as a potential suitor, the LSU star is poised to hear his name called pretty quickly on draft night. If I had to pick the best situation for Fournette, I would lean toward the Jaguars or Panthers, based on their preference for playing power football. In Jacksonville, Fournette would alleviate pressure on Blake Bortles to carry the offense. He not only would give the Jags a big, physical runner to lean on in critical moments, but he would act as a tone-setter with his violent running style as an inside runner.
Fournette would allow Carolina to transition into a traditional power-running team, with Cam Newton serving as a complementary playmaker instead of reprising his role as the lead back on offense. This would reduce some of the wear and tear on the former MVP and diversify the Panthers' offensive approach. Considering how coach Ron Rivera has openly discussed the need for Newton to evolve away from his dual-threat approach, the thought of adding Fournette to the lineup is certainly one that the team's brass likely has entertained.