If you’re the kind of fan who lives to see an offense drive the ball downfield with leads, powers, traps, tosses and a pin-and-pull, then you’re already drooling over this year’s running back draft class. There have only been three running backs selected in the top two spots since 2000. Miami took Ronnie Brown in 2005, and the Saints drafted Reggie Bush in 2006.
Maybe general managers have been fearful of taking a skill position so high in the draft, or it’s just how football evolved over the last 17 years. We see less of a power run game, and more of a spread offense with the quarterback much more involved in the run game. Whatever the reasons, I fully expect to see three or for running backs taken in the first round.
There have been many 49ers fans tweeting out their love of LSU running back Leonard Fournette since the combine. At first, I was hesitant to jump on the running back train. With all the holes to fill on the team, including greater needs at the offensive line, taking a back in the first round seemed like a page out of the old Detroit Lions draft strategy.
Consider me a born again running back supporter.
Fournette is the fourth best running back in LSU football history, gathering 3,830 yards in three seasons with the Tigers. He played in 31 games, carrying the ball 616 times and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. A high-ankle sprain hindered playing time last season, and he only started seven games. But, somehow amassed 843 yards on 129 attempts.
There are few downsides to Fournette’s game. He lacks patience on inside runs when the hole or gap hasn’t developed and stops moving his feet now and then. Part of this problem is due to his high motor. Fournette looks like he’s hitting full speed once he’s at the line of scrimmage, making it difficult for him to wait for something to develop. Don’t expect Fournette to find those slight creases in a line and sneak through for a big gain like Frank Gore did so well.
Now, this could be due to some factors: a subpar offensive line, missed assignments or the defense blew the play up from the start. However, in the NFL, he has to create gaps and holes, rather than wait for a tackle to pull and clear the field of first and second level defenders.
The positive side of these two flaws? Both are fixable in the NFL. Fournette does not need coaching on speed, blitz pick-ups, keeping the ball in his outside arm and blocking downfield for teammates.
I don’t remember the last time I watched a running back who runs off the edge like Fournette. When LSU would call a flip or a toss to Fournette, it looked just like a scrumhalf tossing the ball to his fly-half on a rugby pitch. Fournette would already be near full speed once he got his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, and then he’d cut off the set edge and be off to the races. He was like a high-performance sports car coming out of Deadman’s curve and shifting into 6th gear.
Once Fournette clears the second level of defenders, he’s going to blow the doors off the rest of the defense. The man feeds on open space and out of position defensive backs. At one point watching film, I grabbed a bag of truffle salt popcorn and quit taking notes. Fournette was just that much fun to watch run the rock.
Pro Football Focus rated his pass block efficiency at 96.8 out of a possible score of 100. But keep in mind LSU’s offense only asked Fournette to pass block on 47 snaps, and he didn’t give up a sack. In his 2015 game against Mississippi State, he had a textbook read on a blitzing linebacker. You can drill to improve that fundamental, but it’s hard to teach that kind of fearlessness to stay in and give up the body to someone on a delayed blitz of the C-gap.
The 49ers could use another solid running back to complement Carlos Hyde, but scouts could call Fournett’s durability into question. Can he handle the grind of a 16-game season? The last thing the 49ers need is another running back who can’t make it through a full season, and end up signing below average backs in weeks 12 or 13.
Running backs like Fournette don’t come along very often, and his athleticism alone is hard to pass up. Even if a team had two good backs already, adding Fournette brings another dimension to the running attack. I certainly would not fault the 49ers for taking him second overall this year and would love to see what he can do in Shanahan's running game.