JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars have declined the fifth-year option on running back Leonard Fournette for the 2021 season.
It’s an unsurprising and expected move considering the team was attempting to trade the former fourth overall pick for a month before and during the recent NFL draft.
Fournette will make $4.168 million in 2020 and then become a free agent, unless the team changes its mind and uses the franchise tag.
It has been an eventful month for Fournette. In addition to being on the trade block, he said on social media and on ESPN’s First Take that he wanted the team to sign quarterback Cam Newton.
“It’s no disrespect to [Gardner Minshew],” Fournette said on First Take. “I’m just trying to get in the best position as a team as we can [to] win.”
Fournette is coming off his best season as a pro, rushing for a career-high 1,152 yards and totaling 1,674 yards from scrimmage. He led the Jaguars with 76 receptions, but he scored only three touchdowns and was one of only three players in the NFL to catch 50 or more passes without a touchdown reception (Dalvin Cook and Kenyan Drake were the others).
Fournette was the first draft pick made by executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin in 2017. Coughlin wanted to build the team around a power-run game and dominant defense, and while that worked in 2017 and the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game, things haven’t always gone smoothly between Fournette and the team.
He was suspended for a game during his rookie season because he left the team early during the bye week and skipped the team picture, and he also was fined numerous times for being late to or not paying attention in team meetings.
He didn’t completely learn the offense and quarterback Blake Bortles had to regularly line him up in the correct spot. Even so, he became just the second rookie in franchise history to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and he followed up the 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns with 242 yards and a franchise-record four TDs in three postseason games.
Fournette struggled on and off the field in 2018, missing six full games and half of two others with a right hamstring injury in the first eight weeks, and there was mounting frustration inside the organization about the length of his absence.
All that time away apparently impacted his conditioning. Fournette ended the season heavier than when he reported for training camp, when he said he was down to 223 pounds (his lowest weight since his sophomore season at LSU). It’s unusual for an NFL player to gain weight during the season, and Fournette was unable to do much, if any, conditioning during the time he was rehabbing his hamstring. However, Fournette was not limited by injuries in November and the first half of December and did not improve his conditioning. He did admit in December that he could have been in better shape.
Fournette also was suspended without pay for one game for leaving the bench and fighting with Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Shaq Lawson during the Jaguars’ 24-21 loss at Buffalo. Shortly after that, the Jaguars told Fournette they were voiding the guaranteed money remaining in his contract.
Fournette also was caught on video yelling at a fan in the stands during the team’s embarrassing loss to Tennessee on Dec. 6, 2018. The video clip released on TMZ.com shows Fournette yelling that he was going to “beat your ass” at an unknown fan before two people walk up and escort Fournette away. Fournette said several days later that a fan used a racial slur, a claim that teammate T.J. Yeldon corroborated.
The season ended on a sour note when Coughlin publicly criticized Fournette (who was inactive because of a foot injury) and Yeldon for sitting alone on the bench and acting disinterested during the season finale. Coughlin said they were “disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.” The team fined Fournette $99,000 for that incident, but he appealed to the NFLPA and had the fine rescinded.
Fournette was arrested in April 2019 for driving with a suspended license, for which he eventually paid a $303 fine, and nobody was really sure what to expect from him this past season. He seemed to turn things around, though. He went to the University of Wyoming to work out with a former LSU strength coach during the offseason instead of training in New Orleans. He didn’t attend every OTA, but coach Doug Marrone said he was pleased with the way Fournette practiced and worked when he did show up.
Fournette reported to training camp in good shape and didn’t miss a practice.
There were other small signs that Fournette had matured. He played in only one game in the preseason, but when he wasn’t on the field, he had on a headset so he could hear then-offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s playcalls — and that was at his request.
Plus, it was Fournette who stepped in to pull Marrone away from cornerback Jalen Ramsey during their sideline argument in Houston.
But there also were signs of the old Fournette. He was visibly upset in the locker room after a loss to Indianapolis because he carried the ball only eight times, which came one game after he had only 11 carries in a loss to Houston. Fournette was so frustrated that he said he reached out to Marcus Allen and his father, Leonard Fournette Jr., to vent.