Leonard Fournette is the Poster Child for New Running Back Reality

Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette / Andy Lyons/GettyImages

Leonard Fournette is the top free agent running back available this offseason, a position that is no longer enviable. The last five years have seen a great decline in the value of running backs as teams who give RBs big contracts consistently got burned. No longer does every great offense need a dangerous running back. Instead, the accepted philosophy is to invest everywhere besides running back. If you have a good RB, it's nice. But it's not a problem if you don't.

That is why Fournette is still a free agent, nearly a week after the start of free agency. He has proven himself to be a reliable and versatile back capable of adding a dangerous element to a championship-caliber offense. In 2021, Fournette recorded 812 yards rushing and 454 yards receiving with 10 touchdowns total. He isn't a Jonathan Taylor-level player who can drive an entire offense on his own and garner MVP noise, but his ability to threaten defenses on the ground and through the air with the occasional big play mixed in there is very useful, especially come playoff time.

Fournette reportedly was hoping to enter free agency and earn a high-paying contract. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported Fournette wanted a contract worth $12 million per season. That kind of annual salary would place Fournette among the top-10 highest-paid backs in the league. It seems like a lot for basically a high-end role player, but you can understand the argument. Fournette has the statistics and winning contributions to support his case. He sacrificed his No. 1 role in Jacksonville to split snaps with Ronald Jones II in Tampa Bay specifically to win a Super Bowl.

Fournette will not sniff that $12 million annual salary, though. It's the new reality for running backs. The last significant deal given out to a RB was Christian McCaffrey's massive contract worth $64 million with $36 million guaranteed. McCaffrey has played 10 games in the two seasons since receiving that deal. Teams around the league have taken note.

Running backs basically have to be one of the best players in the league or irreplaceable to their team's offense to even get considered for a big deal. Think Taylor in Indianapolis or Alvin Kamara in New Orleans. Their offenses would fail to function if you took them out of the equation. Fournette doesn't reach that threshold. He's one level below that type of player. That's why Fournette is out here meeting with the Patriots today, who have three starting-caliber running backs on the roster already, after five days of getting nothing in free agency talks.

Fournette is a darn good running back. He is not a star. That means he's not going to get paid very much at all, even if his talents can absolutely be utilized in pursuit of winning a Super Bowl. That's how it is now with the position group. If a running back is undisputedly one of the top players in the NFL, he will get paid as such. Anything less and he's barely getting paid more than his backup.

A tough draw for Fournette and guys like him.