JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Leonard Fournette used to be considered a building block in Jacksonville. Then he ended up on the trading block.
Now, the bruising running back is entering the final year of his rookie contract and facing an uncertain future with the franchise.
Will he pick up Jay Gruden’s offense, build on a career-high 1,152 yards rushing, become a more dependable teammate and maybe earn a long-term deal from the Jaguars or someone else? Or will he lose touches to Jacksonville’s other backs and end up unceremoniously leaving the team that drafted him fourth overall in 2017?
He’s most likely to end up somewhere in between.
This much is certain: Fournette realizes his NFL career is at a crossroads. He spent a good portion of his first media availability of training camp putting spin moves on talk about his play, his passion and his personality.
“I just want to address a lot of things since the media came out and said I was an angry guy,” Fournette said Monday. “Would you be angry if you’re losing week-in and week-out? That is one of my biggest problems. I do get upset when we lose, and it takes me a while to get over it.
“I expect, just like anybody else, if you put the work in, you want the W. But a lot of times last year it didn’t go like that. I guess they kind of misinterpreted that. And don’t get me wrong, I was upset from the losing, but that’s just the winner in me. That’s any guy who plays this professional level of sports.”
Fournette’s competitiveness has never been questioned. His commitment has.
He didn’t know the playbook as well as expected as a rookie. He got out of shape the following year. He also has been injured, benched, suspended, called out publicly and even caught on camera in heated exchanges with coaches and teammates.
He lost his standing as a team captain in 2019, but the former LSU star bounced back with the best season of his young career. He totaled nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage and averaged 4.9 yards a touch for an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in most major categories.
Still, he ended up back in the doghouse during the offseason after he posted a picture of himself with free agent quarterback Cam Newton on social media and asked whether they were going to team up in 2020.
Fans — and quite possibly coaches and teammates — took it as a shot at Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew, whom the front office had already shown a commitment to by trading Super Bowl 52 MVP Nick Foles.
“When all that was going around, I kind of took a step back from football and I had to realize it’s bigger than that,” Fournette said. “It’s a lot bigger than that. I talked to Gardner during the whole thing ... and he understood where I was coming from.”
People inside Jacksonville’s facility have clearly grown tired of Fournette’s antics, so much so that general manager Dave Caldwell made him available during the NFL draft. Caldwell got no worthwhile offers for a 25-year-old back with nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage, 19 touchdowns and just one fumble in three seasons.
Still, it could have served as a wake-up call for Fournette, especially after Jacksonville declined to pick up the fifth-year option in his rookie deal.
Fournette responded by going on a “world tour” of workouts aimed at slimming down and speeding up.
“Wherever the ‘corona’ was at, I ran away from it,” he said, adding that he spent time in Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Dallas before ending up back home in New Orleans.
He’s back in Jacksonville now with plenty to prove, especially considering the running market will be flooded in 2021. Todd Gurley, Kenyan Drake, Tevin Coleman, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Marlon Mack and Aaron Jones are scheduled to be free agents. And Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris and Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill lead a promising group of college backs.
Fournette, meanwhile, is trying to clear the air.
“I’m not a jerk,” he said. “But when it comes to football and winning, I’m all in for that.”
Coach Doug Marrone hasn’t spoken to Fournette about his fragmented past, his faux pas with Newton or his future with the Jags.
“He’s done a nice job. He looks good. He’s in shape. He’s been working hard,” Marrone said. “He hasn’t said anything. He’s been working hard. ... He’s done a really good job. I mean, he looks good, he really does when he’s out there.”
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