Leonard Fournette claims he doesn’t worry about his statistics, that none of those numbers matter other than “winning a Super Bowl.”

From a team-first perspective, that’s all well and good. But the Jaguars’ second-year running back is dead wrong when it comes to downplaying his personal stats, especially yards-per-carry, because they’re going to factor heavily into this franchise’s success in 2018 and beyond.

In fact, maybe as much as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, who had an NFL-high 406 touches last season, as well as the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, no team’s success this year may be as tied to the production of its running back than the Jaguars to Fournette.

While every franchise needs the quarterback to perform at a high level to be a Super Bowl contender, it’s obvious the Jaguars want to lighten the burden on Blake Bortles by asking Fournette to carry a bigger load than most running backs.

And if the Jaguars expect to make a bigger playoff push than last season when they fell 24-20 to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, then it’s imperative that Fournette stays healthy and sees his 3.9 yards-per-carry average spike up in Year Two.

The truth is great backs in their 20s don’t hover at a 3.9 YPC number. When former Jaguars’ gold-standard backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew were at the top of their game — years that were often wasted because the team didn’t have a lights-out defense to be a legitimate postseason threat — they were always in the 4.5-4.7 YPC range.

If Fournette gets to that level, which requires avoiding the nagging injuries that have reduced his effectiveness, the Jaguars should be in the Super Bowl hunt at least the next couple years with this formidable roster.

As his rookie season bore out, health is paramount. Before Fournette hurt his ankle in Week 6 against the Los Angeles Rams, forcing him to miss the next two games, he averaged 4.58 yards per carry. In his last 10 games, including the postseason when he was stymied by Buffalo and New England, that number dropped down to a paltry 3.31 yards.

Now Fournette saw more eight-man boxes than any NFL back last season, and as a rookie, it’s not unusual for production to taper off as they adjust to the pro game. The flip side is No. 27 has no excuse for not being significantly better in 2018.

Beyond the fact the Jaguars have what could be the league’s best defense, thus providing the offense more possessions, Fournette has the benefit of knowing the playbook better and running behind an improved line with the addition of All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell in free agency.

“It could be something special, for sure,” said Jaguars running back Corey Grant. “With this O-line we got, and with Leonard getting more experience, it’s going to be a sight to see.”

Here’s another advantage that gets overlooked by the fantasy geeks salivating over a potential Fournette breakout season: more space on the outside. With physical free-agent receiver Donte Moncrief (6-2, 220 pounds) serving as a blocking upgrade, and second-round draft pick DJ Chark providing another speed threat to keep that eighth defender out of the box, Fournette should have an opportunity for more explosive-type runs.

A lot of things still have to come together, which includes the improvement of a young receiver corps and newcomer tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins being a viable weapon. But there’s no question it’s an ideal situation for the 23-year-old Fournette to ascend into the elite back the Jaguars expect him to be over the next five years.

“There’s a lot of good,” said offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. “We just got to make sure defenses got to defend everybody.”

Last season, despite missing three games, Fournette averaged more touches per game (23.4) than any NFL back except Bell (27.1) and Elliott (26.8). That’s without fully grasping the offense. Imagine how much more effective he could be with a clearer mind, a better O-line and playing quicker at 223 pounds after shedding weight in the offseason.

Receivers coach Keenan McCardell, a Taylor teammate for four seasons (1998-2001), doesn’t think Fournette has quite Taylor’s wiggle or home-run ability, but remains convinced that he can be just as effective with the makeup of this Jaguars’ roster.

“Fred took advantage of all his touches because of what we were able to do outside [in the passing game] with me and Jimmy Smith,” said McCardell. “Leonard’s probably going to get a lot more touches over time.

“His second year, it’s going to be one of the biggest growths of anyone in this league. Things are starting to clear up. Now you start to understand defenses and where you got to cut. I think he’ll get so much better. It’s going to be a different type of ballgame [for opposing defenses] if we keep getting better as a receiver group.”

But the reality is Fournette, who joined Taylor as the only Jaguars’ rookie to eclipse 1,000 yards, is the player most responsible for his own production. He has to know when to power over defenders, when to juke past them, and simply let his instincts take over when that extra yard or two is needed to move the chains.

“We always preach efficiency, efficiency,” Hackett said. “I think as a young player getting to this level and then [Fournette] really ran hard and did a really good job. But I think to me, he almost took sometimes too many hits. I think understanding the system and understanding how we are trying to attack — the more he can understand that, the more he is going to be able to protect himself and get more out of each run play.”

McCardell is right about Fournette not being another Fred Taylor. The University of Florida product never got his just recognition, despite being 17th on the all-time rushing list (11,695 yards) and having the seventh-highest YPC average (4.61) among 40 rushers with a minimum 2,000 attempts.

Fournette doesn’t have to be a Taylor clone for the Jaguars to sustain being a Super Bowl contender. But as he begins what ought to be the best running years of his NFL life, Fournette should care about his numbers. Because the better they are, the better the chances of the Jaguars hoisting a Lombardi trophy.

 

Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540