Leonard Fournette's first practice as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer was on Tuesday morning, just five days before the team is set to take the field in New Orleans for the 2020 season opener. Despite that very brief time to get assimilated in a new offense, Fournette is expected to be involved in the Bucs' Tom Brady-led attack in Week One.
"He'll have a solid role in this plan," said Head Coach Brue Arians of the Bucs' preparations for Sunday. "He's a very bright guy – [he] picked it up pretty quick today. Obviously, he can't do everything, but he'll have a solid role in the plan for the week."
Despite having a clear starter in Ronald Jones II, a still-productive 12th-year veteran in LeSean McCoy and a third-round rookie in Ke'Shawn Vaughn populating their backfield, the Buccaneers swooped in to sign Fournette after he was surprisingly waived by the upstate Jacksonville Jaguars. The fourth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Fournette ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,674 yards from scrimmage last year. That seems like a lot of hands hoping for handoffs, but Arians said he was motivated to add Fournette to that group by the fact that the running back position can get worn down over a long season. Fournette saw all those other backs but still thought coming to Tampa made "perfect sense" for him and the Buccaneers.
"I'm comfortable with my role right now," he said. "I don't have to get beat up every week. Splitting carries is going to help a lot on our bodies towards the end of the year when we're trying to make that run for the playoffs or whatever it may be. So I'm fine with my role right now."
It isn't just a crowded backfield that welcomed Fournette in in Tampa, it's an offense that appears to be loaded at every spot on the depth chart. The wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin was the NFL's most productive tandem in 2019 and the tight end group added Rob Gronkowski to a room that already included top producers O.J. Howard and Cam Brate.
In contrast, Fournette has spent his first three seasons as a clear focal point in an offense that didn't always boast a lot of explosive options. Through his first 36 regular-season games he has 800 touches, or 22.2 per game. As a point of comparison, running back Derrick Henry looked like an absolute workhorse in Tennessee's offense last year, and he averaged 21.4 touches per game. Saquon Barkley is a dual-threat focal point for the Giants and he has averaged 21.4 touches per game through two years.
"I think it's great," said Fournette of operating within an offense with so many potential targets. "Especially when you have a lot of guys like Mike, Chris, Gronk, Tom and the O-Line. You can spread the ball to guys like that and it's not just you. When the defense has to game-plan, [it's] against eight guys, not just one. I think that opens up a variety of things for a lot of guys on our team on the offensive side of the ball."
Even better than taking the focus away from him in game-planning, all of those other Buccaneer weapons could take some defenders out of his way when he does get his handoffs. Fournette's former LSU teammate, Bucs linebacker Devin White, said that the Buccaneers' entire defensive game plan in Week 13 of last year, when they played in Jacksonville, was to stop Fournette. "If we stop him," said White, "we win the game."
That shouldn't be the case in Tampa, and that played into his decision to take the trip down the Gulf Coast.
"I feel like they had all the keys that I needed and vice versa," said Fournette. "I can help the team out, and also, they can help me. I think it's probably one of my first seasons running in a six-man box – which is a smart part on me. I made sure all that was in consideration with me coming here. The coaching staff [is full of] great guys I've been knowing. Some of my coaches know them too, so it was a perfect fit for me."
Arians might have hinted at one way Fournette could get some playing time in Week One, noting the strengths that make him a good fit on third downs.
"He's a big, strong back that can really catch," said the coach. "He can do everything. He can protect, he's a big third-down back and he's been a solid guy in the league. It just gives us another weapon. It's going to be situational, too. Each guy is going to have a role situationally."
Whether Fournette can carve out a piece of the offense of much substance in just five days remains to be seen but in the long run the Bucs' deeper backfield is expected to produce better results in 2020. Last year, the Bucs ranked 24th in rushing yards per game and 28th in yards per carry. From what linebacker Lavonte David has already seen on the practice field over the last month, the 2020 backfield is primed for success.
"It's much better, much better than we had previous years," said David. "Not to knock the other backs we had – we had some decent backs – but we've got multiple [options]. We've got Leonard, we've got RoJo, we've got Shady and we've got Ke'Shawn Vaughn, so a lot of guys who can do a lot with the football in their hands. Having an all-pro-caliber running back come in and join that stable makes our guys' jobs a lot easier. I know the offensive side, they're going to do a lot and they have big plans for how they're going to use all those guys, but it does make our run game even more of a threat."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.