TAMPA ― The discussions won’t be held until after the season. But while the Bucs keep designing more ways to give Leonard Fournette the football, maybe they should be drawing up plans to also hand him a long-term contract.
Fournette, 26, was named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week Wednesday after his four-touchdown performance in the Bucs’ 38-31 win Sunday at Indianapolis, the first such award of his career.
He rushed for 100 yards, including the game-winning, 28-yard touchdown with 20 seconds remaining, and caught seven passes for 31 yards and another score.
Fournette is tied with the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook for 12th in the NFL with 975 total yards from scrimmage. Cook averages $12.5 million per season on a five-year deal. Fournette signed another 1-year contract in March worth $3.25 million.
“We had the (salary) cap thing going on,” Fournette said, referring to the league’s reduced salary cap that resulted from playing much of 2020 without fans due to COVID-19. “But at the end of the day, I love it here. You know what I mean? I made a home name for myself here. They love me back, so we’ll see.
“Right now, I’m trying to get back to the playoffs and win another ring with this squad, which is why I came back and why a lot of guys came back, too.”
A year ago, Fournette was released by the Jaguars and spent much of his first season in Tampa Bay on the bench behind Ronald Jones.
But Fournette took advantage of his opportunity when Jones missed several games last season with COVID-19 and pulled a quad muscle in warmups prior to the NFC wild-card game at Washington. He had 300 yards rushing and 148 yards receiving in four playoff games, including the Super Bowl, or 112 total yards per game.
The other thing to remember is that the only running back under contract for the Bucs in 2022 is Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the former third-round pick from Vanderbilt who has only 34 career rushing attempts for 140 yards and one touchdown. Fournette, Jones and Giovani Bernard all will be unrestricted free agents in 2022.
Perhaps most importantly, Fournette has earned the trust of not only offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, but also quarterback Tom Brady. As teams continue to roll coverage toward receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin while playing mostly two deep safeties, Brady is patient enough to utilize Fournette as a runner and receiver in the open area of the field.
“It’s a lot of trust, but once again, you have to earn it,” Fournette said. “You always earn it. Nothing is ever given. It’s doing the reps the right way at practice. When we’re doing the routes, catching them each and every day at practice, not dropping them. I think that’s how the opportunity came, and they entrusted me with the ball.”
Against Indianapolis, the Bucs also were able to utilize Jones to give Fournette some much-needed rest for the fourth quarter. Jones rushed for 37 yards on seven carries, including a 1-yard touchdown, his second in as many games.
Unlike his role in Jacksonville, where Fournette was expected to put the entire offense on his back, he’s able stay fresher.
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“It’s definitely easy,” Fournette said. “In Jacksonville, I was calling down every blitz … I did everything pretty much. Coming here and not having that load on my back , ... there’s so many other guys that can help each other’s game out..”
The Bucs’ ability to run the ball when they need to will bode well for them in December and January as a likely playoff team. They lead the NFC South by three games with six to play.
Fournette and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who led the Bucs with seven catches for 123 yards Sunday, add a physical dimension to the Bucs offense that is needed in the postseason.
“Gronk was like a diesel truck,” right tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “That was insane. I remember just watching guys holding onto his t-shirt. He’s like, no, I’m in Year 11, I don’t want to get tackled. I’m just going to run you over. That was incredible.
“But yeah, having him and Lenny … all the backs run hard. We know they’re going to be running downhill. I think us having those meetings, having us trust each other and knowing where they’re going to hit with the ball, it’s awesome.”
Fournette has proven his worth in Tampa Bay. Of course, things can change quickly the way they did for Jones a year ago. But the former LSU star believes he has found a home in Tampa Bay.
The only question is for how long?
“Just being here and earning their respect and calling those guys my brothers, it means a lot to me,” Fournette said. “Coming from where I come from and the situation I’ve been at, and now I have a family in a different part of Florida. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
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