Leonard Fournette must prove himself again before getting big contract

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After the best season of his career, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette is pretty much in the same spot he was before the 2019 season.

He must prove himself. Fournette's future earnings depend on it, and the Jaguars want -- and need -- him to do what he did last season again to be competitive in a do-or-die season for coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell.

With the Jaguars unlikely to exercise the fifth-year option on Fournette -- the deadline is May 4 -- this season will be his audition for the rest of the league. His 1,674 yards from scrimmage ranked sixth in the NFL last season, and another season similar to that would be a big boost in getting a decent second contract.

It's not likely to be a huge contract because, aside from Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, backs just aren’t getting that kind of money. Elliott makes $15 million annually, followed by Le’Veon Bell ($13.125 million), David Johnson ($13 million) and Derrick Henry ($10.278 million). None have taken their teams to a Super Bowl, although Henry did come close last season.

In fact, only one of the top-10 highest-paid running backs by annual salary in 2020 has even played in a Super Bowl: fullback Kyle Juszczyk with San Francisco last season. He makes $5.25 million annually. San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman ($4.25 million) and New England’s James White ($4 million) are the only other backs ranked in the top 20 in annual salary in 2020 who have played in a Super Bowl.

Backs don’t carry teams, so there's no need to overpay. In fact, here’s a list of the leading rushers on the past six teams that have played in the Super Bowl: Damien Williams, Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel, Todd Gurley, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Gurley was the only 1,000-yard rusher.

Gurley is a cautionary tale for teams considering paying big money to running backs. The Los Angeles Rams gave him a four-year, $57.5 million extension in 2018, after his third season. Gurley ran for 1,251 yards and an NFL-high 17 touchdowns that year, but knee problems surfaced late in the season and again last season and the Rams cut him last Thursday.

He signed a one-year deal with Atlanta for $6 million last week -- but his contract with the Rams called for him to get a $7.5 million roster bonus and they paid it after they couldn’t work out a trade.

While a big-money contract for Fournette isn’t likely, he can still help himself broker a deal that averages more than $5 million annually with a second-consecutive 1,000-yard season. Fournette ran for a career-high 1,152 yards and caught a team-high 76 passes last season. The only negative was just three touchdowns (all rushing).

But it was still a significant stride for Fournette, who finished the 2018 season with questions about his work ethic, commitment and maturity. Those only intensified after his April arrest for driving with a suspended license, for which he eventually paid a $303 fine, and nobody was really sure what to expect from him in 2019.

Fournette seemed to turn things around, however. He went out 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 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 also 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 wore a headset so he could hear offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s play calls -- and that was at his request.

And 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 only carried the ball eight times, which came one game after he had only 11 carries in another loss to Houston. Fournette was so frustrated that he said he reached out to Marcus Allen and his father, Leonard Fournette Jr., to vent.

But Fournette proved he could stay on the field, missing only the last game because of an illness. Durability was a major concern after he missed 11 games in his first two seasons.

To further prove himself a reliable player -- and potentially entice other teams in the market next offseason -- he must do it again.