Shortly after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season, Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson hit free agency and got a new deal from the Arizona Cardinals. Alshermond Singleton, the starting strongside linebacker on that team, signed with the Dallas Cowboys and got a shot at a bigger role in their defense.
This is normal. Both the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals are likely to see some of the players that just helped them get to the Super Bowl depart for new and sometimes bigger opportunities. What is decidedly not normal is what the Buccaneers did a year ago after winning another Super Bowl. That team somehow managed to "keep the band together," becoming the first championship squad to bring back all 22 starters (and many other regular contributors) the following season since the Steelers in the 1970s.
The 2021 Buccaneers did this despite the possibility of roughly two dozen players hitting free agency. They had to get creative to make it happen. Chris Godwin was kept on the franchise tag. Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett got long-term deals. Tom Brady signed a one-year contract extension that provided the team with cap relief. And a lot of those players who wanted to stick around for a run at a repeated championship did so by signing one-year deals. Of course, that means those players are once again on the Bucs' list of potential free agents, and once again that list is long. Twenty-three players long, in fact.
One of the players in that last group is running back Leonard Fournette, who followed a star turn in the 2020 postseason run to the title by taking over as the team's clear lead back for most of 2021. Now he will either return to an offense that has proved to be a good fit for him the last two years (but that no longer has Brady) or will seek to attract other suitors in free agency. His decision, and the level of aggression the Buccaneers adopt in trying to bring him back, will have an impact on how the team addresses its offensive backfield in free agency and the draft.
The Bucs won't be able to keep all 23 of those potential free agents, but they'll try to keep as much of their playoff-caliber core intact as possible. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 key players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2022 Free Agent Focus rundown:
February 15: TE Rob Gronkowski
February 17: G Alex Cappa
February 22: CB Carlton Davis
February 24: QB Blaine Gabbert
March 1: DL Ndamukong Suh
March 3: RB Leonard Fournette
March 8: DL Will Gholston
March 10: WR Chris Godwin
March 14: S Jordan Whitehead
March 15: C Ryan Jensen
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, today we will focus on the man who got the nickname Lombardi Lenny just over a year ago for his big role in helping the Bucs go all the way in 2020.
Player: Leonard Fournette
Position: Running Back
Age at the Start of the 2022 Season: 27
Experience: Entering sixth NFL season
How Acquired: Signed as a free agent in September of 2020 after being waived by the Jacksonville Jaguars
Previous Contract(s): As the fourth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Fournette got the standard four-year deal with a team-option fifth year that all first-round picks receive. The Jaguars declined to pick up the option year in the spring of 2020 and later waived Fournette near the end of training camp later that summer. The Buccaneers signed Fournette to a one-year deal in 2020, then again in 2021.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2021*:* 68th. PFF comment: "Fournette rejuvenated his NFL career in Tampa Bay's duo-heavy rushing attack. He has been one of the best runners in gap schemes in the league this season, so it makes sense that he would look to join a team that utilizes a similar approach if he doesn't stay with the Buccaneers."
2021 Performance: In the preseason and at the very beginning of the regular season, Head Coach Bruce Arians considered Fournette and Ronald Jones as essentially co-starters at running back, and in fact he alternated starts for the two in August and the first two weeks of the regular season. By Week Three, however, Fournette had clearly solidified his hold on the lead role and held onto it the rest of the way, only derailed for a short time in December and January by a hamstring injury.
Even after missing the last three games of the regular season, Fournette led the Bucs with 812 yards and eight touchdowns on 180 carries, averaging a career-high 4.5 yards per tote. He also finished third on the team with 69 catches, adding 454 yards and giving him a team-leading 1,266 yards from scrimmage. He scored twice more through the air to tie his single-season best with 10 total touchdowns. At the time of his injury, Fournette was leading all NFL backs in receptions.
Fournette had to sit out the Buccaneers' Wild Card win over Philadelphia but returned to score two rushing touchdowns and put up a total of 107 yards from scrimmage in the thrilling Divisional Round game between the Bucs and Rams. Fournette's nine-yard touchdown run on a do-or-die fourth-and-one tied the game at 27-27 with less than a minute to play and completed the home team's stunning comeback from a 24-point deficit. Unfortunately, the Rams won the game on a walk-off field goal as time expired.
Career Accomplishments: In five seasons, including the first three with the Jaguars, Fournette has logged 493 carries for 3,810 yards and 31 touchdowns, averaging 4.0 yards per run. He has also hauled in 239 passes for 1,696 yards and four touchdowns. His 181 catches over the past three seasons, including one in Jacksonville, rank third among all running backs in that span.
Fournette's playoff explosion during the Bucs' Super Bowl run was nothing new for the former LSU star. He had a similar impact on the Jaguars' three-game playoff run at the end of his rookie season, scoring four touchdowns and contributing 286 yards from scrimmage. In 2020, he became just the third player in league history to score touchdowns in four straight games in a single postseason, joining Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Davis on that short list. In just eight postseason contests so far, Fournette has scored 10 touchdowns. He is the Buccaneers' all-time postseason leader in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.
Other Potential Free Agent Running Backs: Cordarrelle Patterson* (Atlanta), James Conner (Arizona), Chase Edmonds (Arizona), Melvin Gordon (Denver), Sony Michel (L.A. Rams), Rashaad Penny (Seattle), Justin Jackson (L.A. Chargers), Marlon Mack (Indianapolis), James White (New England), Raheem Mostert (San Francisco), Darrel Williams (Kansas City)
(* Patterson may be considered a running back or a wide receiver by various interested teams.)
Top Running Back Prospects in 2022 NFL Draft: Breece Hall (Iowa State), Isaiah Spiller (Texas A&M), Kyren Williams (Notre Dame), Kenneth Walker (Michigan State), Jerome Ford (Cincinnati), Abram Smith (Baylor), Hassan Haskins (Michigan), James Cook (Georgia), Dameon Pierce (Florida), Tyler Allgier (BYU)