Narrowing the Field to Find 2022’s Leonard Fournette (Fantasy Football)
Remember when we all gave up on Leonard Fournette?
After a shaky 2020 fantasy season, Fournette unleashed a dominant season and finished as the overall RB7. If you had him on your roster (I didn’t), he was probably even better than his fantasy finish suggests. From Weeks 4-15, Fournette was the RB3, with only one week outside the top 24. “Regular Season Lenny,” anyone?
Fournette shocked the fantasy world and crushed his 8th-round ADP. Go ahead and call it a comeback. But here’s the question: should we have seen this coming?
Now, Fournette is a grown man with an elite combination of speed, size, and strength, and 2021 was an interesting year for veteran backs we’d left for dead. Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman were first in line for the Ravens at various points, Jordan Howard delivered a top-10 finish in Week 8, and guess who was the overall RB4 in Week 16? Rex Burkhead. Blinded by nostalgia, I even shelled out all of my season FAAB on Adrian Peterson. Not my best work, I’ll admit.
The “Narrowing the Field” series has predicted some true difference makers over the years, from George Kittle and Mark Andrews to Chris Godwin and Calvin Ridley before their breakouts. For this study, we’re not looking for a breakout so much as a resurgence. We’re going to identify factors that created the environment for Fournette to be your fantasy MVP, and we’ll systematically eliminate players that don’t fit the criteria. The result? A selection of players who are capable of providing the kind of value that can propel you toward a #footclantitle.
Note: I did the majority of this research in the Ultimate Draft Kit. That I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter smooth graphic above? The Ultimate Draft Kit’s Weekly Consistency Tool. Check it out for yourself and get Mike, Andy, and Jason’s breakouts, sleepers, values, busts, and more. IYKYK.
1. Outside the Top-24 RBs
This is obvious, right? We’re trying to find the RB that’s going to be a surprise and a value, so anyone currently being drafted as a top-24 back is ineligible. In 2021, Leonard Fournette was being taken in the 8th round of drafts in the RB33-36 range. In this case, we’re looking only at running backs with an ADP of the 5th round or later.
Players eliminated: Any of the Top 24 RBs by ADP, including Leonard Fournette…duh.
No youths for this dive; old guys rule. As we get closer to the season, camp reports and preseason games cause the ADP of rookies to fluctuate wildly. Veterans get pushed further down the draft board in favor of the new hotness. Of course, some first-year players will find themselves in a good situation with an injury here or there, but we’re looking for someone who’s been around the block. 2021 was Leonard Fournette‘s 5th season in the league, and he had enough of a track record for people to form deeply held opinions. Sorry, Dameon Pierce truthers, he doesn’t qualify.
3. Recent disappointment…
Nothing pushes down the ADP like a bad taste in your mouth. After the 2019 season, Jacksonville released(!) Playoff Lenny in favor of UDFA James Robinson. Ouch. The signing of quarterback prospect Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. shot expectations sky high for Fournette’s new team, so he was still being drafted in the 3rd round in 2020. Good offense, He didn’t pay off that draft capital. Fournette finished the season as the RB38, while teammate Ronald Jones finished as the RB16. The hype train had left the station. Heading into 2021, RoJo was the new hotness and was being drafted nearly a round ahead of Fournette. A down season can happen for several reasons, be it injury, competition, or a case of the fumbles. We’re looking for players who finished outside the top 24 in 2021.
Players eliminated: Cordarelle Patterson (RB9), Devin Singletary (RB20), James Robinson (RB24), Antonio Gibson (RB10; yes, I’m eliminating him twice because he’ll probably end up outside the top 24 in ADP), Damien Harris (RB13), Melvin Gordon III (RB18), A.J. Dillon (RB23)
4. …But previous success
It’s not like Fournette appeared out of thin air. He was the 4th overall pick for Jacksonville in 2017 and already had two top-10 finishes under his belt (RB9 in 2019; RB8 in 2017.) Despite a lackluster fantasy season, Fournette dominated in the 2020 playoffs, scoring a touchdown in every game. The Bucs won the Super Bowl, and Playoff Lenny was born anew as “Lombardi Lenny.”
TDs in All 4 Postseason Games – NFL History
(In a single postseason)
2020 Leonard Fournette
2008 Larry Fitzgerald
1997 Terrell Davis pic.twitter.com/uUsOpUSgvU
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) February 8, 2021
The playoff run should have been a sign, but we fantasy managers are a salty bunch. He didn’t come through when it mattered for fantasy. But Fournette’s track record, while spotty, was an important indicator of the season he was capable of in 2021. To find this year’s version of Leonard Fournette, we need players who have shown us they can get it done. We’re looking for players with either a top-24 finish in their career or a dominant weekly stretch of top-10 finishes.
4. Chance to dominate backfield targets
Leonard Fournette averaged six targets per game for a Tampa Bay team that had the fourth-most targets to the running back position. In his two most recent top-1o finishes (2021 and 2019), Fournette averaged a 77% share of the running back targets. And this is all without dominating the snaps. Fournette averaged a 64% snap share in 2021, but he accounted for two-thirds (68%) of the running back workload (average of RB attempts and targets).
Players most likely to be your Playoff Lenny
Chase Edmonds | Current ADP: 8.06, RB35
Admittedly, I’m cheating a little for Chase Edmonds. His career-best fantasy finish is RB28, and he’s never been trusted as a three-down back. But I’m excited about him in 2022. Leonard Fournette took a year to get control of the Tampa Bay backfield, but Edmonds finds himself in a great spot to make an immediate impact. First, Edmonds is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking offensive scheme Mike McDaniel is installing in Miami. SincMcDaniel’sMike McDaniel offenses rank fifth in the league Edmonds has never been a snap share hog, but he should have a stranglehold on the pass-catching work at the very least. Chase Edmonds averaged 5.2 targets in games where he was healthy in 2021, and he finished as the RB6 in Week 16 when James Conner was sidelined. With that receiving floor, Edmonds doesn’t have to have 200+ carries to be relevant. Plus, he’s uber-productive when he gets the football, ranking 6th in fantasy points per touch among qualified backs over the last two seasons.
With Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle living rent-free in defensive coordinators’ heads all season, Edmonds should have plenty of room to work inside and underneath. Edmonds should also soak up a few of Mike Gesicki‘s 111 targets from 2021, now that Gesicki working to transition to more of a blocking tight end. Much like Fournette in 2021, Edmonds is being drafted beyond the RB “dead zone” in the eighth round. Remember, there are only 32 teams in the NFL, so the lead (and pass-catching) back on the Miami Dolphins is being drafted as the RB35! Edmonds is already a major value and could be a league winner at that ADP. One more thing: stats are great and all, but they pale in comparison to the fact that Jason has dubbed Edmonds one of his #myguys for 2022. So don’t take my word for it.
Rashaad Penny | Current ADP: 8.06, RB35
Rashaad Penny has never finished in the top-24 and doesn’t have much history as a pass catcher, but his 2021 season reminds me of Leonard Fournette in 2020 as much as anyone on this list. Much like Fournette, Penny went on a tear at the end of the season. Penny was the overall RB1 from Weeks 14-18, averaging 21.5 fantasy points on his way to delivering fantasy championships to managers who were #blessed enough to grab him off waivers. That run includes three top-5 weekly finishes at the position. For Penny, talent has never been the issue; after playing 14 games as a rookie in 2018, Penny only suited up for 13 total in 2019-2020. He simply hasn’t been able to stay on the field, but last season was a sample of what he can do when healthy.
In 2020, a stint on the COVID-19 list and a quad injury in the playoffs for Ronald Jones set the stage for the Playoff Lenny takeover. Chris Carson‘s neck injury and subsequent retirement re-introduced us to Rashaad Penny in 2021. Yes, the Seahawks have drafted his replacement in Ken Walker III, but Seattle brought Penny back on a one-year, $5.75 million deal as the 10th highest cap hit at RB in the league. They wanted Penny back for this season, and Pete Carroll is committed to establishing the run. With no timetable on Walker’s return from hernia surgery, Penny can reestablish himself as the clear lead back. Even on a bad Seattle team, his volume should make him an incredible value at his 8th-round ADP.
Kareem Hunt | Current ADP: 7.04 RB29
Injury waylaid Kareem Hunt‘s 2021 campaign, limiting him to eight games. But he started the 2021 season on fire, scoring five touchdowns in as many games. In that span, Hunt was the RB5 and was on pace for 1,500 all-purpose yards and an RB1 finish. And that was without any receiving touchdowns, which has been his calling card for the Browns. There’s a lot of turnover and uncertainty in Cleveland, but we can expect the backfield to operate largely the same regardless of the quarterback. Hunt should command most of the backfield targets, and he’s no slouch when his number is called on the ground (4.9 Yards per Attempt in 2021).
Kareem Hunt is only a season removed from an RB10 finish alongside Nick Chubb (who finished as RB9), and he just turned 27; he’s the same age as Leonard Fournette and only six months older than Chubb. The timeshare with Chubb and a subpar 2021 has kept his ADP low, but Hunt has the track record of a top-12 running back. He’s currently being drafted FIVE rounds later than Chubb, so he’s already an excellent value. If Chubb were to miss time in 2022, Hunt is a locked-and-loaded league winner.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire | Current ADP: 6.04, RB26
Of all the players on this list, Clyde Edwards-Helaire is being drafted the highest as the RB26. He’s smack dab in the middle of the RB dead zone, and there are some other options available to you at key positions in the sixth round. At ADP he’s a risk, there’s no denying that. The starting running back in Kansas City finds himself in this spot due to an injury-plagued 2021 and a failure to meet the loftiest of expectations in his rookie season. CEH missed seven games in 2021 due to sprained MCL and a collarbone injury, and he recently revealed that he missed most of the 2021 offseason training due to gallbladder surgery, telling the Arrowhead Addict podcast: “My gallbladder completely stopped working. I was down to about 160 pounds and then before I knew it, it was my first time getting a rep with the football from the Super Bowl was the first OTA practice.” That means Edwards-Helaire has never reaped the benefits of getting in a full offseason with his teammates. Until now.
There’s also no denying the opportunity in Kansas City. Tyreek Hill and his 159 targets are gone. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has traditionally been more of a deep threat, and JuJu Smith-Schuster has had his own struggles staying healthy. He’s still tied to Patrick Mahomes and was drafted for his pass-catching ability in Andy Reid’s offensive system. And last I checked, your gallbladder doesn’t grow back. CEH might be injury-prone, or he might be unlucky. After all, he’s still only 23 years old. In his rookie season, Clyde Edwards-Helaire showcased his potential, recording four top-12 finishes in 2020. As far as backfield competition goes, Ronald Jones (ever heard of him?!) was signed to the Chiefs in the offseason, but his Korg-like hands don’t present much of a threat to CEH’s receiving work. Isiah Pacheco is a great story and looks like he belongs in the league, but he was drafted in the late 7th round. Jerick McKinnon is a pass-catching back, but I see him as more of an insurance policy if CEH goes down or can’t get it done. Up to this point, CEH has been treated as the starter in camp and preseason; if he can capitalize on his role in a prolific offense, a top-10 finish is possible.
Honorable Mention: Rhamondre Stevenson | Current ADP: 9.06, RB38
I’m not projecting Rhamondre Stevenson to take the job from Damien Harris in 2022, and Harris is probably a better goal-line back at this point. I eliminated him from the list earlier because we’ve seen only flashes in his rookie campaign. Still, I like Rhamondre for his talent and his ADP. One of the big questions I’ve asked myself in this study is, Could this player be the lead back even without an injury to teammates? When you’re talking about the New England Patriots, it’s usually pretty easy to get to a “yes,” albeit with very little certainty. In his rookie season, Rhamondre Stevenson worked his way into more of a timeshare with Damien Harris, and reports out of camp suggest Harris could be the preferred beneficiary of James White‘s retirement and Brandon Bolden‘s departure. In 2021, Stevenson earned a target on 21.2% of his routes, compared to 17% for Harris. And we know any Patriot can be one fumble or missed assignment away from multiple series, or even games, on the bench. With Damien Harris in the final year of his contract, I won’t be surprised if the Pats see what they really have in Rhamondre.